Books and the reading of them lay in the nucleus of Eric Hobsbawm’s being. Before even going to university, he was fluent in English, French and German, had read widely in all three languages, was well acquainted with the works of Marx and Lenin and had studied history intensively. All this at the age of nineteen; and he was still reading in his nineties.
Hobsbawm became a communist in his teens and never relinquished the set of core values that had made him one. Late in life, when asked why he had not resigned from the Communist Party he replied:
I don’t like being in the company of the sort of people I’ve seen leaving the Communist Party and becoming anti-Communist. There are certain clubs of which I would not wish to be a member. I don’t want to be untrue to my past or to friends and comrades of mine, a lot of them dead, some of them killed by their own side, whom I’ve admired and who in many ways are models to follow, in their unselfishness and devotion.
He was monitored by MI5 from the Second World War onwards, proving themselves incapable of realizing he was not a militant communist and not in a position to betray anything of value to the Russians. He was never a red under the bed.
His book “The age of revolution”, the first of a quartet, is ably assessed by his biographer who describes it in positive terms as having thrown ‘the British tradition of political narrative overboard’.
Right-wing commentators criticised its follow-up, “The age of Capital”, which rather goes to show how good it was.
Hobsbawm was seventy and still going strong when “The age of empire” was published and Evans calculates that the last of the quartet, “Age of extremes”, received more reviews than any other of his books.
Hobsbawm wrote far, far more than these four books but they constitute the rock on which his reputation and his value remains solid.
One of his other books, “Bandits”, is not so good, though Evans does not say so.
In portraying Francisco Sabate and his comrades as Spanish equivalent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, rationalizing a passion for quixotic adventures behind the guide of political action, Hobsbawm seriously undervalued the anarchist tradition in which they made sense of their struggle.
He had little interest in some parts of the world, like sub-Saharan Africa, but his knowledge of the world was hugely impressive. He loved South America: ‘I’m crazy about the continent’, he wrote after arriving in Chile in 1963. His mother was Jewish and he publicly declared that non-Zionist Jews should criticise Israeli policies. He underestimated the power of nationalism and identity politics and he was prophetic in distrusting them.
This is an admirably scholarly and revealing biography, written by an eminent historian who doesn’t share his subject’s politics but knows the value of the man and the books he wrote.
“Eric Hobsbawm: A life in history”, by Richard J. Evans, is published by Little, Brown