How will we and our times be remembered by our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren? What will they, the next century’s historians, and the media of their times, make of us, of our ideas, hopes, fears, efforts and illusions—of our victories and defeats? Will these last even matter? Of this we know nothing, but of two things we can be certain: that future remembrances and historiography will differ from ours, and that the future will have its history, too, of changes, revisions, and reinterpretations. A key document, that future historians of our times will certainly read, sift, critically evaluate, and use for their own purposes still not even adumbrated, is Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes.footnote1 A good bet is that they will read it as an auto-biography of the twentieth century, not perhaps the only one but probably the most comprehensive and the best written.
For us in the nineties, Hobsbawm is the greatest of all contemporary historians. More than anybody else, he has provided ‘us’—that is, ‘the intelligent
At the centre of Hobsbawm’s oeuvre stands the tetralogy of which Age of Extremes is the final part. The quartet opened, a third of a century ago, with The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (1962), followed by The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987). Among the works of synthesis we may also count the more specialized Industry and Empire. An Economic History of Britain since 1750 published in 1968. Good historions, like good wines, only become better over the years. Hobsbawm’s major works are like vintage ports, well matured, delicately balanced, full of the aroma of reflected experience. The first volume of the quartet appeared when its author was forty-five. The four of them span what in my youth was called ‘a generation’.
Before his Ages were fully conceived, apparently by the time of the publication of The Age of Empire, Eric Hobsbawm was probably best known as a labour historian. His first book, published in 1948, was an annotated edition of documents on Labour’s Turning Point, 1880–1900. Easy access can be gained to Hobsbawm’s vast output on labour history through the two major collections Labouring Men (1964) and Worlds of Labour (1984). Related to his labour histories was his work on the history of Marxism, both as a historian of its diffusion and reception, and as the main editor of the five-volume international work, Storia del Marxismo (1978–82).
A good case could also be made for Eric Hobsbawm as a cultural historian. The work he edited with Terence Ranger on The Invention of Tradition (1983) has become a classic in the field. Before that, he had made a sterling contribution to political iconography, ‘Man and Woman: Images on the Left’, in Worlds of Labour. His Wiles Lectures on nationalism, given in Belfast in 1985 and published in 1990 as Nations and Nationalism since 1780, constitute one of a half-dozen key works among a vast and expanding industry of scholarship and publishing on the topic. The fact that, as Francis Newton, he has been a distinguished jazz critic only adds to his stature as a cultural historian.footnote3.
Two aspects of Hobsbawm’s oeuvre are particularly striking: his enormous but lightly borne and witty erudition and wisdom—a product of his wide-ranging curiosity and vast, reflective experience—and his extraordinary combination of loyalty and independence of mind. Politics,
Eric Hobsbawm is a conscientious Labour Party voter and was a card-carrying Communist for as long as the cpgb existed. When his friends and colleagues of the famous British Communist Historians’ Group left or were expelled from the Party in 1956, Hobsbawm stayed, silently, neither hiding nor denying his sympathies for the dissidents. A well-trained Marxist, he was not, however, an orthodox Marxist labour historian, as is shown by his interest in Italian and Spanish Primitive Rebels (1959) and, more generally, in society’s outsiders, as in Bandits (1969). While his discrete loyalty kept him from writing on communism, he could be scathingly critical of Party piety, as in his review of James Klugman’s History of the Communist Party of Great Britain (1966).footnote4 It was typical of his perceptive and unbiased character that he was the first, in the Marx Memorial Lecture of March 1978, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, to herald the new turn in class history, two years before the bells tolled on the Left Bank.footnote5