Friday, 16 October 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm (9 June 1917 – 1 October 2012)

Yes, it’s one of Birkbeck’s very own Giants – a colossus, in fact – in the unmistakable form of Eric Hobsbawn, the eminent “British” Marxist historian and a name that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who hasn’t been hiding away in a rain forest these past ninety eight years. Because Eric’s prominence and world renown came about chiefly in the last twenty five years of his (extremely long, and contentious) life, the image we tend to have of him is that of a very old man, though one every bit as sharp and quick-witted as the young man whose formative times took place against the backdrop of some the most significant events in history, ones he would later write about in the over thirty books he went on to pen.

Our story begins many years ago, back in the days when Britain still had an Empire and long before anyone could ever have imagined that an obscene disaster like the First World War was even remotely possible. Because it wasn’t. Not once the powers-that-be had sat around the table, chewed over the fat and decided that the best thing all round was if Europe divided into two opposing factions, both armed to the teeth with industrial-strength weaponry, so that each camp neutralised the threat of the other: that way there never could be another war ever again. It was a brilliant plan, although it did have one tiny flaw in it: it was utter cobblers. Anyhow, while Gavrilo Princip was still looking for the nearest gunshop, an uncle of the as-yet unconceived Eric, Sidney, went off to Alexandria in Egypt, then a British protectorate (by “protectorate” we mean somewhere with stuff worth nicking off the defenceless natives) and, while he was there, managed to wangle a job in a shipping office for his brother, Leopold Percy Hobsbaum (the dad-to-be), both of them being sons of a Polish Jew who had come to London in the 1870s. It wasn’t just exports that Leo had his eye on out there because, in 1914, it fell upon the daughter of a middle-class Viennese family, Nelly Grün, who had won her trip to Egypt for doing so well at her schooling. With that kind of brains and brass, she was clearly something of a catch and so Leo lost no time in popping the question. Alas, before anyone could say, “the path of true love never ran smooth,” an Archduke’s chauffeur had taken a wrong turning and all hell broke loose. It would be 1916, in Switzerland, before they could get married, though they were back in Alexandria in plenty of time for Eric’s birth in June of the following year.

Things didn’t get off to the best of starts because, a touch ironically perhaps for such a distinguished man of letters, Eric was to set out in life as a typo. Well, more your clerical error really. His old man had originally been called Leopold Obstbaum, which, when translated, would’ve given our lad the rather marvellous name of Eric Fruit Tree, except that the dad had already changed the spelling to Hobsbaum (Pulling Up Trees). And then, in an administrative blunder that could’ve been avoided by a simple visit to Specsavers, the name that got filled onto the form was Eric Hobsbawm and there’s no point in arguing with bureaucracy, especially when they’ve got the paperwork to prove it, so Hobsbawm he was from then on in. Being born in 1917 meant that he arrived on the scene just as History had her hands pretty well full, what with the First World War getting into full-flow on the one hand and, on the other, the February and October Revolutions in Russia. Which, thanks to the Russians still using the older Julian calendar, actually took place in March and November. Depending on which way you look at it. Though it does show how tricky this History business really is. By 1919, once the great Houses of Europe (most of ‘em cousins) had got through bickering with each other and had just about run out of young men to slaughter in their squabble, things calmed down a tad and the family was able to move to Vienna. There, in 1927, Eric would witness an event that would become one of his earliest political memories. The workers had taken great umbrage with their anti-Semitic Catholic clergyman Chancellor – Ignaz Seipel, or “the Bloody Prelate” – because of his constant cosying up to wealthy industrialists whilst inflicting harsh austerity measures on everyone else, so they burned down his Palace of Justice, to see what he’d do about that then, matey. What he did was to unleash his paramilitary thugs and armed police, who shot into the protestors, killing eighty four and injuring over six hundred more.

In 1929, when Eric was twelve, his father suddenly died of a heart attack and then, not two years later, his mother was taken off by tuberculosis. Once again, Uncle Sidney stepped into the breach and took Eric (and sister Nancy) off to live in Berlin, then part of the Weimar Republic, where history and politics were not just in books but actually out there on the hoof. Meanwhile, in order to help support the family, Eric took work as a tutor and an au pair. Now, before anyone starts to run away with misleading images of our man in a little black dress and frilly apron, au pair comes from the French, meaning at par or equal to, thus indicating that such a person was treated, if only temporarily, as a member of the household, rather than a servant (Stella Rimington and Jennifer Saunders were both au pairs in their time, so he’s in good company). He read Marx for the first time and became a communist, an experience that would shape the rest of his days. On 30 January 1933, on his way home from school (the Prinz Heinrich-Gymnasium) Eric emerged from the railway station to discover that Germany had elected a new Chancellor: Adolf Hitler. In a move designed to “keep the Nazi Party in check.” Which, like the Let’s Prevent Wars one, didn’t quite work out. The country became polarised and, much later, Eric would observe that, “In Germany there wasn't any alternative left … If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi ... I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.” However, he decided firmly against dipping a toe in the Nazi slime. Instead, he joined the Socialist Schoolboys and sold its publication, Schulkampf (School Struggle), riskily keeping the organisation’s duplicator under his bed and, more than likely, writing most of the articles himself. Later that year, Uncle Sidney was reposted to England and Eric found himself in London.

Eric attended St Marylebone Grammar School (whose pot pourri of alumni includes Adam Ant, Len Deighton, John Barnes and Jerome K. Jerome), where he excelled. During this period, he was introduced to jazz and became hooked on what he called the “unanswerable sound,” experiencing an epiphany when he first heard the Duke Ellington Band. Later, in the 1950s, he was jazz critic for the New Statesman and even published a Penguin Special on the subject, The Jazz Scene, albeit under the pen-name of Francis Newton (shamelessly pinched from Billie Holiday's trumpet player), though now available under the Hobsbawn banner. From school, it was off on a scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge, to study History and be doctored when he received a PhD for his dissertation on the Fabian Society. Whilst there, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, where the phrase quickly developed amongst his colleagues: “Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn't know?” He was also elected a member of the legendary (and notorious) group, the Cambridge Apostles, so called because of their original twelve members and boasting some big names amongst their former ranks, including: John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster and Rupert Brooke. Wittgenstein was another, though he hated it, mainly because he saw it as boffins being unserious and a bit too chummy with one another, neither of which he could stand. It was also a happy hunting ground for the KGB, who enlisted Burgess, Philby, MacLean and Blunt from their number, and there was even an extravagant suggestion that Wittgenstein was recruited, though this seems unlikely, seeing he was far too much of a miserygut, even for the KGB.

When “keeping the Nazi Party in check” proved to be wildly over-optimistic, along came another war and Eric swiftly volunteered, with the idea that, being something of a brainiac who could speak German, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, and read Dutch, Portuguese and Catalan, intelligence work might be his cup of tea. Alas, a cretinous Army hierarchy unceremoniously widdled on that particular bonfire and rejected one of the sharpest minds of those times (perhaps any), ostensibly on the grounds that they knew all about his communist background (which hadn’t deterred the Foreign Office from recruiting the entire Cambridge Spy Ring from the same source) but, more likely, it was because Hobsbawm would probably outboffin the rest of ‘em into a cocked hat and make them appear intellectually feeble. Especially if they decided (as they did) that someone of Eric’s calibre would be better off employed as a sapper digging ditches, which is what he ended up doing with the Royal Engineers, though he was exposed (and converted) to the working class for the first time during this period, whom he described as, “not very clever … but they were very, very good people.”

It wasn’t all just work as far as Eric was concerned and, in 1943, he married one Muriel Seaman but, like many another wartime romance, it would all end in tears, when she ran off with another man. They divorced in 1951. By way of getting his own back, Eric went sowing a few wild oats of his own, having a fling (not to mention a child) with a married woman, though she too would give him the old heave-ho, preferring to stay with her husband.

In 1947 came the move to Birkbeck, joining as a lecturer in History and thus beginning a lifelong association with the College, becoming reader (1959), Professor (1970), Emeritus Professor (1982) and then President (2002). For any out there unsure – like us – the word emeritus is said as if by a Yorkshireman: Ee, merit us! It’s from Latin (ex, out of, and merere, to serve or earn), and basically means a retired professor that’s still on the go. Why couldn’t they just say that? What Eric did say was that, “A centre of evening education is essential to a world city … There is still no other place like Birkbeck.” Despite the cloak of academia, there was still a streak of the laddish bohemian about our Eric and many a night, way into the wee small hours, he’d be off getting into all kinds of jazz-scene capers with the likes of Colin MacInnes, George Melly and Francis Bacon, though rock ‘n’ roll would never be his bag (“infantile”) and he absolutely drew the line at blue jeans. Come on, Eric – bit difficult to imagine the proletariat rising up en masse sporting cavalry twills, wouldn’t you say? Denims or no, MI5 and Special Branch were still keeping their beady eyes on him at this time, monitoring his contacts, intercepting his private correspondence and tapping his phone calls, in order to “unearth overt or covert intellectual Communists who may be unknown to us.” Surely if they’re “overt”, they shouldn’t be “unknown” or need much “unearthing,” should they? Still, at this stage, they didn’t have the faintest idea of what Blunt was getting up to right under their very noses when he wasn’t poking around amongst the Queen’s pictures, so expectations weren’t especially high and nobody had actually used the word “intelligence” in their case. Eric was also a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1949 to 1955 and, in both posts (Birkbeck and King’s), he just about scraped in under the wire before the Cold War really started to kick in, seeing a diluted version of McCarthyism was rampant at that time: you didn’t get booted out but nor did you get promoted: both Colleges would block him from advancements in the spirit of rabid paranoia.

His first book, Primitive Rebels, was published in 1959 and then, in 1962, he once more took the plunge and married Viennese-born Marlene Schwarz, who would prove an altogether better (and longer-lasting) choice in the happiness stakes. More books (plus two children: Andrew and Julia) followed in swift succession, including The Age of Revolution (1962), Labouring Men (1964), Industry and Empire (1968), and Bandits (1969). He was also then a visiting professor at Stanford, then MIT, though fanatical American anti-communist hysteria meant a limey pinko like our Eric would have a hard time of it getting in each time he popped across the Pond.

Despite the numerous setbacks and countless ticklish situations that his pro-Communist (and often pro-Soviet) stance had undoubtedly landed him, he remained steadfast throughout, even when most of his comrade-colleagues did a swift abandon-ship following the invasion of Hungary and the brutal repression of the Prague Spring (both of which Eric condemned). His views on the subject are well known, so we’re going to gloss over them rather, much after the fashion of the great historian himself whenever some matter a tad awkward to his position hove into view, such as when the Russians and Nazis signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (1939–1941) to become matey for a while, about which Eric merely remarked “that need not detain us here.” On the tricky question of why communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder, he had a side-step shimmy that would have graced any jazz club dancefloor, responding that it “is not part of the present chapter.” His loyalty to the Party was unswerving.

“The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely, the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do....Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed....If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so.” 

The “lines” he so dutifully followed included: accepting the order to side with the Nazis against the Weimar-supporting Social Democrats in 1932; accepting the order to side with the Nazis (against Britain) following the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact; and condoning the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary. In 1954, just after Stalin's death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party. Finally, in 1991, not long before that party’s dissolution, he at last allowed his membership to lapse.

Well, nobody’s perfect. Besides which, Eric was most decidedly uncommunist when it came to status and titles and all that kind of carry-on. In 1971, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and then followed that up by becoming a Fellow of the British Academy in 1978. Further proof of his mellowing out came in 1983 when he went all politically mainstream, helping to drag the Labour Party up out of the nadir it had mired itself in and, in so doing, getting himself dubbed as “Neil Kinnock’s Favourite Marxist” whilst also paving the way (well, the Third Way, you might say) for what would eventually become New Labour. Mind you, Eric far from approved of what that particular beast would evolve into and even went so far as to describe Blair as “Thatcher in trousers,” though that in no way prevented him from accepting when Tony decided to thank him in the now traditional New Labour fashion by dishing out a gong to him, making him a Companion of Honour a few months after his eightieth birthday. In 2003, he would receive the Balzan Prize for European History and then, in 2006, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Eric continued to churn out the books – The Age of Capital (1975), Workers (1984), The Age of Empire (1987), The Age of Extremes (1994), On History (1997) and Uncommon People (1998), to name but a handful – but it was ever in the teaching, particularly at Birkbeck, where his heart lay. Indeed, many of the books grew directly out of lectures, where his standard was to see things through the eyes of his own students: “You work all day long and then you have two-hour lectures. Can I keep you awake? That was the test.” Well, Professor Hobsbawm, we’re pleased to say you’ve passed with flying colours. In 2007, he congratulated his graduates for their “sheer grit and resolution,” telling them that, “we have the satisfaction that Birkbeck is living up to its mission, which is to give the chance of university education or just a second chance to men and women who wouldn’t get one otherwise, to slake the thirst for a lifetime of learning and intellectual curiosity, and to do so at the highest standards.” Perhaps the last word, though, should be taken from his ninetieth birthday celebrations, when he commented that “One of the inestimable advantages of teaching such students as those in Birkbeck is that so many of them in my time were, as the College still is, committed not just to self-improvement but to making a better world.”

After quietly fighting leukaemia for a number of years, Eric Hobsbawm died of pneumonia in the early hours of 1 October 2012.


Late Eric: By Rob Ward (Flickr: HayFestivalA-011.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand: By Achille Beltrame (Cropped version of File:Beltrame Sarajevo.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ignaz Seipel: Wenzl Weis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Duke Ellington: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Windsor Davies: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ribbentrop: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H04810 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons
Blair: Müller / MSC [CC BY 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

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