An intellectual biography of Eric Hobsbawm

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology

Abstract

Eric Hobsbawm was undoubtedly one of the most important English-language historians of the twentieth-century. His books were hugely successful and his ideas were discussed far beyond the confines of British academia. At the same time, he was the archetypal intellectual. He remained a specialist in his discipline but he participated actively in civic and political debates about contemporary British, European and global politics. He was not an activist but his commitments and his ideas reflected the intense politicisation and lingering utopias of the twentieth century. There are few historians whose ideas have been discussed by Peruvian trade unionists, Italian Eurocommunists and Cuban Communist ideologues, but the universal Marxist themes that underpinned Hobsbawm's writing made his work accessible to very diverse audiences.

This multiplicity of contexts makes it particularly difficult to build a unified and chronological picture. I have therefore chosen instead to organise the project around three common themes that illuminate Hobsbawm's development as a public figure.

The first is the role of the intellectual in British public life. In the twentieth century, the British have often been reticent about the notion of the intellectual, but Hobsbawm's unusual trajectory - he was brought up in interwar Austria and Germany - meant that he had a different view of public and political engagement. In Britain he was first and foremost a historian, but elsewhere he was called upon to speak intelligently about topical subjects that were only tangentially related to his professional interests. Hobsbawm thus offers a unique insight into the way the twentieth-century European intellectual was formed and shaped.

The second theme is the global imagination of twentieth-century Marxist politics. This means taking seriously, not simply the economic and social implications of Hobsbawm's Marxism, but also its ethical dimensions. Rather than returning to hackneyed debates about whether Hobsbawm's lifelong commitment to Communism was 'good' or 'bad', I want to bring to bear new global and transnational perspectives on the study of the intellectual history of Marxism by emphasising how he used Marxism to help him weave historical stories that influenced hundreds of thousands of readers the world over.

The third theme is historical writing. Through a close reading of Hobsbawm's Ages tetralogy and his other textbooks, I will investigate the stylistic underpinnings of English-language history writing. Amongst other things, I will explore Hobsbawm's interest in science and economics; the influence of continental European social scientific writing of the 1930s, 40s and 50s; and the importance of his career as a teacher. I will also consider the way he marketed his books: Hobsbawm had a remarkable talent for self-promotion and the commercial underpinnings of his history writing played an important role in his success.

These three themes will allow me to explore the foundations of Hobsbawm's thought, his intellectual trajectory, and the relationship between his personal commitments and his public engagement. They will make it possible for me to compare him with his contemporaries and draw out the common threads that brought together a broad and transnational constellation of twentieth-century Marxist intellectuals. And, crucially, they will help us understand why Hobsbawm was able to contribute to the right debates at the right time. Without this, it is impossible to explain the progression of his ideas and his astonishing long-term impact.

Planned Impact

There are two key beneficiaries of my proposed research.

1) The general public (including school and university students)

In today's digital environment, the first port of call for the vast majority of intellectual debate and activity is the internet. However, Eric Hobsbawm did not maintain his own digital presence, which means that information about his life and work is currently scattered across open-source websites (such as Wikipedia) and journalistic essays or obituaries. In order to fill this gap, I will develop an Eric Hobsbawm resource website as an integral part of this research project.

The website will include a full bibliography with hyperlinks, biographical information and a range of additional links. Once it is up and running, the website will supplant other sources of information on the internet about Hobsbawm. It will be regularly updated after the end of the project and it will be available in English, French, Spanish and Italian, thereby extending its reach to a global audience. There will also be the opportunity for other scholars pursuing research in related areas to contribute their reflections. Over time, the website will develop into a reliable and powerful open-access resource for scholars, students and the general public.

2) Journalists, left-wing activists and left-wing activist organisations/institutions/politicians

Hobsbawm had a long and tempestuous relationship with the political Left. His Communist convictions were frequently challenged, not just by opponents but also by sympathisers. Indeed, more than one generation of young left-wing activists built their political identities in opposition to him and the ideas he represented. Some of the political battles with which he was involved - for example, over the invasion of Hungary in 1956 - have now become the subject of historical scholarship. Yet others remain live today - for example, the question of whether the left should emphasise economic exploitation or identity politics.

Of course, the historian's job is not to take sides - and I do not intend to do so. But Hobsbawm's unique position as witness and commentator gives me the opportunity to connect my research directly to contemporary debates. In the first instance, I will do this by building on my existing media and press experience in order to publish a series of short articles and essays about Hobsbawm's writings and their present-day relevance (approximately one article per month). These will appear in a variety of mainstream forums (eg. The Guardian, Libération), as well as more niche publications (eg. Jacobin Magazine), and I will aim to publish in a number of different countries/languages.

I will also develop emerging collaborations with institutions that have an association with the left (eg. the People's History Museum in Manchester, the Istituto Gramsci in Rome, and the Fondation Jean Jaurès in Paris). This engagement with the political community will have a threefold benefit. It will allow me to disseminate my research; it will make it possible for me to think through Hobsbawm's legacy; and it will also contribute directly to some of the most urgent contemporary debates surrounding inequality, economic crisis, political fragmentation and the future of the left.

Publications

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Chabal E (2018) The voice of Hobsbawm in Aeon

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Chabal E (2019) Marx at 200 in Socialist History

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Chabal E (2019) Hobsbawm at the Margins in Jacobin Magazine

 
Description A public lecture at the Graduate Institute, Geneva 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A talk at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland about Eric Hobsbawm's intellectual apprenticeship in the 1950s. Around 50 people attended, especially staff and students in history and the social sciences. A good discussion followed on the nature of intellectual capital and the importance of intellectual networks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://graduateinstitute.ch/communications/events/intellectual-entrepreneurship-eric-hobsbawm-and-p...
 
Description A public lecture at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Buenos Aires, Argentina 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A public lecture (in Spanish) at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Buenos Aires, Argentina on Eric Hobsbawm's international connections. More than 50 people attended, especially staff and students in history and the social sciences. There was a good discussion after the talk on the international circulation of ideas and the history of Marxism.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public Lecture at OP Jindal University, Sonipat (Haryana), India 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A talk at OP Jindal University, Sonipat (Haryana), India on the Communist Party Historians Group. Upwards of 20 people attended, especially staff in history and the social sciences. A good discussion followed on the nature of historical change and the professionalisation of history.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public lecture at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City, Mexico 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A talk (in Spanish) at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico City, Mexico on Eric Hobsbawm's international connections. Upwards of 20 people attended, especially staff in history and the social sciences. A good discussion followed on the international circulation of ideas, especially on the left.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public lecture at Colegio de Altos Estudios, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Public lecture at Colegio de Altos Estudios, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The subject was Eric Hobsbawm and the Communist Party Historians Group in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Upwards of 30 people attended. The talk was also recorded as a Youtube video, which is publicly available. The talk was simultaneously translated in Portuguese and English; it provoked a wide discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbHE5A6bM9o
 
Description Public lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Public lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India, which was attended by more than 50 people, especially students. The subject was Eric Hobsbawm's student Communism. A wide discussion on social movements and left-wing activism followed the talk, especially in relation to an ongoing social movement in the university. Requests for further intellectual collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public lecture at Northumbria University, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A public lecture at Northumbria University to the 'Histories of Activism' research cluster. The topic of the lecture was Communist intellectuals and 1956. There was a vibrant discussion afterwards about the nature of intellectual engagement with politics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public lecture at Universidade Federal do Paraná - UFPR, Curitiba, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Public lecture given to staff and students at the Universidade Federal do Paraná - UFPR, Curitiba, Brazil. The subject was Eric Hobsbawm's student politics. More than 50 people attended. It sparked a wide discussion about Communist politics in Britain and left-wing politics in Brazil.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://pethistoriaufpr.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/palestra-sonhos-revolucionarios-eric-hobsbawn-e-o-c...
 
Description Segment on BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed as part of a panel debate on Marxism for BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking programme on 2 May 2018. I contributed a global perspective to the discussion. Free Thinking reaches a large British and international audience. I have been invited to continue participating and sharing my research on Free Thinking.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b0x6m0
 
Description Workshop on protest at the People's History Museum, Manchester 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A small workshop held at the People's History Museum in Manchester on the subject of writing and remembering protest, organised in collaboration with Dr Aditya Sarkar (Warwick). 10 people attended. They listened to short lectures by the two organisers on Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson, and they participated in associated pedagogical activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://phm.org.uk/events/writing-and-remembering-protest/