Eric Hobsbawm: A Tribute by Hywel Francis MP
(From Left to right Marlene Hobsbawm, Tristram Hunt MP, Eric Hobsbawm and Hywel Francis MP at the life-time award ceremony in Parliament in June 2011)
Eric Hobsbawm: 1917-2012
Eric Hobsbawm, Britain’s most eminent historian and a proud founder member of the Bevan Foundation in 2000, died earlier this week.
Through his writings and his teaching, Professor Eric Hobsbawm made history accessible and relevant to generations of students, political activists and, indeed, to millions of people, giving voice to the marginalised, to working men and women and to everyone struggling for justice throughout the world. He was one of the founders, maybe the founder of social history, what we came to call ‘history from below’.
He is the historian that most influenced me throughout my life. I am proud to say that my 1963 edition of Primitive Rebels has the recent inscription
After many years of friendship and comradeship – on the occasion of the Parliamentary Honour organised on 15 June 2011.
As chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History I had presided over our first life-time award ceremony. It was to Eric for his achievement as a historian. It was the measure of the regard in which he was held that neither I nor Tristram Hunt, fellow Labour MPs, had proposed him but Lord (Tim) Boswell, the former Conservative Higher Education Minister (and appropriately for this week, a ‘one nation’ Tory) and Lord Paul Bew, Irish historian and cross-bencher. (For political balance we also honoured Hugh Thomas only to find they were good friends and admirers of each other’s work!)
On that very special occasion, Eric characteristically wanted to compliment the ‘fine kitchens’ for the meal (echoes of Ho Chi Minh in the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel) and to praise the all-party group for safeguarding archives because, as he said in his usual self-deprecating way ‘historians come and go, but we will always need archives.’ It was so appropriate that Ed Miliband, sharing as he did, common European roots, came to pay tribute to him.
Eric was born in Egypt to Jewish parents in 1917. He was eventually to grow up in Austria and Germany and to witness the rise of Nazism. He joined the Communist Party in 1931 and became part of the early resistance to Nazism and anti-Semitism following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. These early formative years are described in a moving yet personally modest way in his autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (2002)
I well remember him talking in an interview with Dai Smith at the Hay Festival about those terrible years as most of his Jewish family perished in the Nazi Holocaust but he fortunately escaped as a young refugee to Britain.
His reputation as a historian centres on his magisterial four volumes Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Age of Capital 1848-1875, the Age of Empire 1975 -1914 and Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (published between 1962 and 1994).
But beyond those four volumes he was phenomenally productive to the very end and doing so in constantly linking the present with the past particularly with the end of the Soviet Union and the current world banking crisis. His Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007) and How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (2011) asserted the continuing relevance of his lifelong commitment to socialism.
It was so appropriate that his 2007 volume was dedicated to Birkbeck, the London University College for part-time students where he taught continuously from 1947 until his retirement and where he became Honorary President. He always emphasised the need to support the students who were not the ‘stars’ – the stars, he said, will always prosper. And he was always proud to describe himself as committed to life-long learning.
In the recent tributes to him, led by Ed Miliband and Neil Kinnock, it was his political impact in the 1970s and 1980s which have been emphasised. In his 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture “Forward March of Labour Halted?” and his work in Marxism Today on whose Board I served with him in the mid 1980s, where he identified the declining power of organized labour and of economic militancy as well as the emergence of ‘Thatcherism’ as a new political phenomenon.
For those who criticised him for his lifetime adherence to Marxism, one only needs to point to the fact that none of his works were published in the Soviet Union, even though they were translated into forty languages. His was an ant-Stalinist Marxist who was more in tune with the ecumenical euro-communism of Italy’s Antonio Gramsci.
It was for that reason possibly that he took a keen interest in us, the dissenting, radical and seemingly marginal Welsh and our history. He had a home in Gwynedd and more recently in Hay. He lectured for the South Wales miners at their weekend schools in Porthcawl’s Esplanade Hotel in the 1960s and spoke at our Welsh Labour History Conference ‘Forward into History’ at Swansea in 1987. And he was a keen admirer of the Welsh and British Communist miners’ leader who also met with the disapproval of Stalin’s Russia. Eric supervised the late Nina Fishman’s doctoral thesis. He shared her enthusiasm for Horner as an organic intellectual and wrote the foreword to her biography Arthur Horner: A Political Biography (2010). He was also President of the Hay Festival.
Nina too was a founder member of the Bevan Foundation and also one of our Trustees. Nina and Eric both subscribed to the elevating role of history, in providing resources of hope in difficult times (as his friend Raymond Williams had put it).
In reviewing Age of Extremes, his friend the late Edward Said wrote
‘The 20th Century after all is a great age of resistance, and that has not completely been silenced.’ (London Review of Books, 9 March 1995).
Eric Hobsbawm helped give voice to that resistance and for that reason we now celebrate his life.
Hywel Francis is MP for Aberavon
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