THE GRAND OLD MAN OF HISTORY
ERIC HOBSBAWM was perhaps the finest guide to the history of modern times. He remained a Marxist and a Communist for the greater part of his 95 years and wore his intellectual orientation on his sleeve. His dozen books and six score essays on the world we inhabit combined jaw-dropping scholarship with low-key felicity and a sureness of touch. He helped shape the common sense of a generation in Europe, the Americas and India.
Born in Egypt, to Jewish parents, Hobsbawm left Hitler’s Germany and moved to England, where he imbibed the spirit of ‘Red Cambridge’ of the 1930s. The academic year 1939, as he wrote in his memoirs with modest pride, “was pretty good”. He got a first class in all his history papers. He edited Granta, still a byword for literary writing, and was admitted to the select club of the Apostles that counted philosophers Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, economist Keynes and novelist EM Forster among its members. Hobsbawm was known among his peers for his amazing knowledge and command over the obscurest subjects. ‘Usual Rumours’ a contemporaneous piece in Granta noted , “there is a freshman in King’s College who knows about everything.”
Hobsbawm, the polymath-Marxist- stylist, brought all these to his analysis of the bylanes of history. He provided as much insight to the ‘intelligent man and woman’ on rural rebels, bandits and workers as on imperialism, capitalism and nationalism. If he produced path-breaking essays on the relationship between cultural and economic history, he also analysed jazz and its development in America. His lasting achievement is, however, the three volume History of Europe that had major consequence for the non-European world as well. In his later years, he wrote a more personalised history, starting with the time of his birth in the year of the Russian Revolution and the break-up of the Soviet Union
His books focussed more on interpretation rather than on providing a detailed (dull) narrative, which over the centuries had given history books a bad name. The ideal reader for Hobsbawm is “the intelligent and educated citizen, who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is and whither it is going”. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, published in 1962, was the first of his grand surveys of modern times. “Words are witnesses which often speak louder than documents,” he wrote with characteristic élan, and egged his readers to consider not only words like industry, middle class, capitalism, socialism, but also aristocracy, railways, liberal and conservative, nationality as well as statistics — all of which define the modern world and the “things and concepts for which they provide names.”
In India where popular history-writing of the ‘Rapid English Reader’ variety has cornered the market, and majoritarian and sectarian-national and identity-hurts are closing the space for an informed dialogue about the past and the present, the voice of the grand old man of history needs amplification. For Hobsbawm , the swadharma of the historian was not to bury the past under the weight of nonfictional facts, but to make it intelligible without anachronism. Above all to write to make the reader sit up. If there was one labour that the encyclopedic Hobsbawm did not undertake, it was an engagement with the fraught relationship between Britain and its prize colony. This curious omission on the part of most Left-leaning historians of post-War Britain, left the field of ‘colonial history’ largely to the ‘Imperial historians’ from the British Isles.
Hobsbawm was a master of a felicitous turn of phrase: ‘What a contemporary observer sees is not necessarily the truth, but the historian neglects it at his own peril’. (1962) ‘New countries, new states, require two things. They require history and they require a flag — without these two things they don’t even exist. And the people who establish them are not really interested in history… They are interested in something which will make people feel good’ (conversation with Indian historians, Delhi, 2004). Two years earlier, he wrote with impish delight in his memoirs: “This book is not written in the now very saleable confessional mode… I am neither a St. Augustine nor a Rousseau. In any case… historians are not gossip columnists. The military merits of generals are not to be judged by what they do, or fail to do, in bed… Besides, I suspect that readers with a taste for biographies which lift bedclothes would find my own life disappointing’. Eric Hobsbawm will be known not only for his wide sweep of history. His wordsmithery will get the reader’s nod (and a smile) for a long time to come.
Amin is a well-known historian