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IN MY OPINION

No retirement for Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

Death of an influential historian at age 95.

By YVES LABERGE | NOV 21 2012
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Eric Hobsbawm at Hay Festival 2011. Photo by Rob Ward, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

Esteemed historian Eric Hobsbawm died on October 1 at the ripe age of 95. A prolific and often controversial author, and an expert on 19th- and 20th-century Western society, he was one of the rare Marxist historians to impose his unpopular points of view during the Cold War.

Hobsbawm lived in several world capitals during the course of his childhood and teenage years, including Alexandria, Vienna, Berlin and, as of 1933, London. His family, which was Jewish and communist, no longer felt at home in Nazi Germany. Like many other opponents to Hitler’s regime, he joined the Communist Party in England in 1936, at age 19.

Despite his talent, hard work and cultural knowledge, Hobsbawm’s career was often full of difficulty, especially early on. After earning his PhD from Cambridge University, he lectured at Birkbeck College (affiliated with University of London) from 1947 to 1970. Due to his publicly expressed political beliefs, he did not receive tenure until he was in his sixties. At the beginning of his teaching career, Hobsbawm mainly taught adult education courses. He was named emeritus professor in 1982 and returned to Birkbeck College 20 years later, this time as president.

His most influential books, many of which were published in several languages, include The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 and The Age of Capital: 1848-1875.

Hobsbawm’s work had a major influence in Canada, both in English and French universities, and particularly at Université du Québec à Montréal. His books satiated students’ appetite for history to be told differently, that is, from the perspectives of people whose voices are not often heard in the history books: the nameless, the minorities, the outcasts. Today, his books are found not only in Canadian university libraries, but also in many public and municipal libraries across the country.

In retrospect, it can be said that Hobsbawm was much more than a revolutionary historian; as a keen observer and theorist who was open to interdisciplinarity, he took part in the first ideological debates in the journal Past & Present, whose readership included not only historical scientists but also sociologists, political scientists and economists. In his early works, he introduced a “history from below” approach, in line with the Marxist history movement and the cultural studies that gained momentum in Great Britain in the early 1960s. The approach also prompted studies on the history of nationalism and Memory Studies.

He had an unusual view of history: he believed that the l9th century began during the French Revolution in 1789 and ended in 1914 with the start of World War I. As he saw it, 1914 marked the beginning of the 20th century, which ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Unlike most academics, Hobsbawm produced his best-known works after reaching retirement age: Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century. In 2002, he published an autobiography, Interesting Times, in which he says that he was fortunate to have become a historian and to have had a front-row seat in a century marked by political and historical unrest.

Hobsbawm was a lover of music, particularly jazz, and penned a regular music column for The New Statesman magazine under the pseudonym Francis Newton. His captivating book The Jazz Scene, first published in 1959 and later reissued, is still available in English.

A few weeks before he died, the irrepressible writer had submitted to his publisher, Little Brown, the complete manuscript for Fractured Spring, whose posthumous release is slated for March 2013. While there will be no retirement for Eric Hobsbawm, he will have achieved immortality.

Yves Laberge is a sociologist living in Quebec City.

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