Eric Hobswam (1917- 01 October 2012) is no more.
I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were the years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Hobsbawm’s writings, particularly his 3 volume trilogy formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.
It was the late Mohit Sen who introduced me to Hobsbawm’s works. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to Hobsbawm- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen over the decades.
Both went on to recount those years in their respective biographies, though Mohit must have felt very crestfallen on discovering that Hobsbawm had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, while Mohit spent considerable ink on his former teacher.
Hobsbawm’s trilogy on the 19th century, undoubtedly forms the core his work. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the Marxist in Hobsbawm began overshadowing the historian.
Along with Perry Anderson and Roy Medveydev, he was one of the most articulate and clear headed Marxist analysts of the contemporary world after the collapse of ‘existing socialism’. No doubt, there are others as well. But what lends authenticity to these thinkers is their roots in the Marxism of the Old Left, their lifelong faith and support for Soviet socialism, warts and all, and their ability to explain the aftermath in Marxist terms. Even if they are critical of the Left or the former Soviet Union, one finds it easier to accept their views than to accept the same views from anyone who was either anti- communist or anti- Soviet Union when it existed.
Unlike those on the New Left, for example, Hobsbawm showed intellectual resilience and imparted an intellectual grace- if not a defence- to the nobility of the ideas that spawned the October Revolution, even as the Revolution crumbled under it’s own weight.