I was delighted to learn about Birkbeck College’s Eric Hobsbawm Postgraduate Scholarships. Hobsbawm was one of Europe’s leading historians, who inspired several generations of younger scholars through his remarkable syntheses of world history. He was also a fine teacher and one of British Communism’s few intellectual giants.
Theoretically, Hobsbawm’s work was visibly strongly informed by his Marxism. But as well as a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, his interests and thinking were also influenced by his lengthy membership of the Communist Party. He claimed in his autobiography, as well as in person, that his political loyalties were forged during the struggle against Nazism, and when others forged new movements in the 50s and 60s, he remained.
Coming from a later generation, viewing the Soviet Union as an oppressive, imperialist and violent dictatorship, I found this hard to swallow. But it wasn’t something he was prepared to argue about with young whipper-snappers like me, and – as Perry Anderson points out – his autobiography is at best oblique about his views on Stalinism and the dishonesty that it engendered.
What he did take from the Communist tradition was a strong belief in the virtues of discipline, hard work and organization. I have strong memories of Hobsbawm’s bewilderment and dismay when Raphael Samuel and others involved in History Workshop suggested that creativity and even a bit of chaos never did anyone much harm. For Hobsbawm, this was the sin of ‘romanticism’.
He was also – although I don’t think ever he saw himself this way – a lifelong adult educator. He often spoke of his disappointment at being denied a post at Cambridge, which he attributed – publicly at least – to the anti-Communist anxieties of the University authorities.
Even McCarthyism could have unintended consequences, and perhaps one of them was that Hobsbawm spent most of his working life teaching at Birkbeck College. Or perhaps it was partly that, like several of his friends and comrades who also found themselves teaching adults in the late 1940s, full-time academic posts at that time were few and far between.
Hobsbawm must have given gave hundreds of lectures to non-academic audiences, of trade unionists and weekend schoolers and others, in Britain and elsewhere, showing every sign of enjoying the lively exchanges that followed. He was a spell-binding speaker, combining analytical precision and clarity with a broad sweep across the historical landscape.
So it should be clear that I am ambivalent about Hobsbawm, whom I see as a complex figure and a flawed one. But he was an inspirational writer, an encyclopedic historian and a great teacher, and the Birkbeck scholarships are a fine way of marking his memory.