Eric Hobsbawm has died and with him has gone a final link to the vanished world of the largely German speaking secular Jewish intelligentsia of Central Europe. He has been vilified for his accommodations with Stalinism and his loyalty to the Communist cause as other leading British Communist intellectuals handed in their party cards , many in 1956, most of the rest in 1968.
Hobsbawm remained in the CPGB until its final demise in 1991. Much of this criticism ignores the formative experiences of Hobsbawm’s life, brought up in an increasingly antisemitic Vienna until his parents both died in 1931 when he went to live with an uncle in Berlin where he watched at first hand the Nazi seizure of power. It is hardly surprising that he should have seen the only way forward for mankind in Soviet Communism. He was not the only intelligent observer to be of this view. Most of the others had not felt the frisson of fear that he undoubtedly did as he watched SA men picketing Jewish shops or beating up socialists.
He was also a fine historian, a man with an understanding of the broad sweep and an eye for the detail that related that to the specific. A historian of the 19th and 20th century he also made an important contribution to the debate on the 17th century with his famous article in Past and Present in 1962. A probing and subtle mind has left us.
In the week that the Labour Party conference begins it is pertinent to revisit his 1980 essay “The Forward March of Labour halted?” in which he analysed the breakdown of the social base of Labour support, this in the early years of Thatchersim. This predicted that Labour’s journey back to power might be long and arduous and require painful rethinking of what the Party was for. His essay was published by Verso with a number of critical responses. Hobsbawm challenged the prevailing Bennite orthodoxies while his opponents either failed, or did not want, to understand his argument. History has proved him right and while he will be remembered chiefly for his historical works, as he should, his timely and perceptive contributions to political debate should not be forgotten. As an ‘intellectuel engage’, unafraid to voice uncomfortable truths he will be sorely missed.