A review of Richard Evans on Eric Hobsbawm with special attention to Italy.

Richard Evans, Eric Hobsbawm. A Life in History, Little, Brown, 2019.

John Foot, University of Bristol

It is rare for academics to have biographies dedicated to them, including historians. But Eric Hobsbawm was no ordinary academic, and no ordinary historian. His books were consistent best-sellers, right across the globe. He was a household name, and not just in the UK, but also in Italy, Brazil and other nations. His slogan/concept of the ‘short twentieth century’ has been taken up by many, and was perfectly timed to hit the zeitgeist as the world changed in the 1990s. He was a brilliant synthesiser of history, especially in his celebrated Age of … series, but he also was interested in subjects not often dealt with in the mainstream – bandits, organised crime, millenarians, southern Italy in general. And for most of his life and long career, he called himself both a communist, and a Marxist. He was followed by the secrete services and his life was documented by them, something which provides Richard Evans with a wealth of material from which to draw, and he leaves very little out. This biography runs to nearly 800 pages.

Hobsbawn’s life was almost like a microcosm of the twentieth century, linked as it was to empire, fascism, socialism and communism . He was born in Alexandria in Egypt, he was in Berlin in 1933, he witnessed the election and enthusiasm around the Popular Front in France in 1936, had a glimpse of Spain during the civil war and revolution and took part in World War Two. After 1945 he travelled widely, was a warrior in the cold war, and lived long enough to see the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It was an extraordinary life, encapsulating some of the most tragic and dramatic moments of the twentieth century itself. 

Evans claims that his book ‘focuses above all on his personal experiences and indeed on his inner life’ (p. ix), but this is not always true. There is an immense amount of detail about the facts of Hobsbawm’s life, but as for his ‘inner life’, this is a different matter. The biography moves between the public and the private, but I’m not sure we really ever fully understand what drove this great historian, and why he was to become so popular and so widely read. The collapse of his first marriage was clearly a low point, and Evans claims he contemplated suicide. His second marriage was much happier and long-lasting, and brought him two children. He also had a child from another relationship with whom he kept in close touch and supported. There are fascinating snippets of his private life here and there, including the fact that he spent a lot of time in the bars and clubs of Soho as a young man.

Almost symbolically, he was born in 1917 into a Jewish family. After Egypt, he briefly visited Trieste in 1919 with his mother – his first but certainly not last encounter with Italy. He soon sympathised with the left. By 1931 he was an orphan, and his relationship with the rest of his family remained fractured and complicated. He was in Berlin in 1933, leaving Germany before Hitler came to power, but he witnessed the political violence which preceded that moment. In London he attended Marylebone Grammar School for boys and moved towards communism as a school boy. He was undoubtedly a swot, and he later wrote in his diary that ‘Britain was provincial, boring and predictable’ (p. 55). He read Marx as a teenager and made a pilgrimage to the great man’s (at the time modest) grave in Highgate Cemetery in North London. In his free time he enjoyed cycling and walking, but he also wondered about how revolution would be organised. 

He quickly developed a lifelong passion for jazz and saw Duke Ellington on stage. In the mid-1930s he was admitted into Kings College, Cambridge, to study history. In 1936 he was in Paris for some of the demonstrations around the election of the Popular Front and saw the Communist Maurice Thorez speak to a huge crowd. He also slipped across the border for a time and experienced the thrill of revolutionary Spain. He was a striking and brilliant student, and notoriously scruffy. He frequented groups of communists at university, some of whom later went on to be well known spies for the USSR. After graduating he decided to do a PhD, but the war intervened. He was kept from the front line, it seems, because of fears that he might ‘spread communism’ amongst the troops.  

Italy was important for Hobsbawm’s intellectual development, his political life and as a constant holiday destination (he continued to visit right into his nineties). He both read and spoke well in Italian and was deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci.[i] He said that he often read and re-read The Prison Notebooks, in the 4-volume Einaudi edition edited by Valentino Gerratana. Gramsci was useful to him for his political understanding of revolutionary movements, but also for an analysis of the Italian south. Politically, he moved towards a more centrist and moderate position in the 1980s and 1990s, as did the Euro-communist movements he admired, particularly that of the Italian Communist Party. Hobsbawm was friends with many leading Italian intellectuals and politicians, Piero Sraffa, Delio Cantimori, Giulio Einaudi and Corrado Vivanti, who was the link between the PCI and Einaudi. He had a close relationship with the Turin publishing house which published many of his books in Italy, and the circle around Giulio Einaudi himself (although he complained about their royalties and the time they took to publish some of his earlier books). In the 2000s he remembered how Einaudi ‘would take (under-royaltied) authors like me to dinner at the opulent Cambio restaurant, unchanged since Cavour had planned the transformation of the Kingdom of Savoy into the Kingdom of Italy at its tables. In the last war every member of the firm, Einaudi claimed, had joined the armed resistance’.[ii]

In many ways, Italy, and its large and culturally-sophisticated Communist Party provided Hobsbawm with the political and cultural home he struggled to find in the UK, with its tiny Communist Party and large Labour Party. Anna Di Qual has looked deeply into the activities and role of Hobsbawm in Italy and her work is essential for a further understanding of his cultural and political presence over an extended period of time.[iii] His natural home was Einaudi, but he also published with Rizzoli, Laterza, Riuniti (the PCI’s own publisher) and Mursia amongst others. Giulio Einaudi also convinced him to edit a multi-volume history of Marxism. 4 Volumes and five tomes. It was a vast and costly project, which took years to complete. 

He saw Italy as what he called ‘a political laboratory’. In 1977 he wrote that ‘Italy was, as it were, a microcosm of world capitalism inasmuch as it contained in a single country both metropolis and colonies, advanced and backward regions.’ His interest in the Italian Communist Party was deep and long-lasting, and he interviewed Giorgio Napolitano – an interview that became a book – in the 1970s. His work on banditry included a number of studies of Italian personalities and movements. His second wife, Muriel Seaman, had worked in Rome and he learnt Italian – speaking to a high level. This can be seen in a fascinating TV interview with Enzo Biagi, where the two spar around questions of Marxism and historical method (http://www.teche.rai.it/2020/08/made-england-le-grandi-inchieste-enzo-biagi/). Hobsbawm well understood the complexities of the language and the subtleties of debates. He was depressed and shocked by the swift collapse/suicide of the PCI after 1990, something he lived from the inside and the outside, as a militant and as a historian. Hobsbawm wrote that the (ex) Communist Party ‘lost both its sense of the past and its sense of a future’ in the 1990s.[iv] He became close friends with Napolitano, and his 80th birthday was celebrated in the Teatro Felice in Genoa in 2002 with a debate with Napolitano and others, in front of a packed theatre.

Marxism for Hobsbawm was both a method – he was always interested in laying down the economic base behind all historical change, and the role of class struggle, and the importance of the poor, the working class. But he was also unorthodox, writing about bandits, outsiders, the excluded. He always understood the importance of culture – most famously jazz, of which he was a huge fan, but also sport (he loved football), literature, art. He could take the long view – as in his magnificent multi-volume history which ended with The Age of Extremes. But he could also adopt a micro-approach, as with his essays on jazz.

Above all Hobsbawm had a great and much under-rated and much looked down upon skill – he could reach and engage a wide audience in history, synthesise complicated debates, summarise long periods of time in a few pithy and dense pages, which could be read by anyone. His writing was crystal clear, easy to follow and outward rather than inward looking. He was both read and widely cited, the opposite of a historian like Renzo De Felice, whose writing style was inward looking and academic, and footnote heavy. Hobsbawm used footnotes sparingly, not because he had not read widely, but to lighten the text and indicate the key work in each field and area. See for example, the clarity of his introduction to the influential The Invention of Tradition, which manages to be conceptual and entertaining as well as do its main job of introducing an edited text, all at the same time. His books went way beyond the academy into the homes of many millions of people, across dozens of countries. Often, a Hobsbawm book might be the only history book in a household. 

In later years, his methodology could appear somewhat anachronistic – outdated even. Marxism was not in vogue. He struggled with gender analysis (as in the infamous title of his book Labouring Men) and had no interest in oral history, which he never understood. He lived long enough to see many of his interpretations and pioneering studies contested and often refuted. He didn’t leave the Communist Party, even after 1956 and 1968, but he understood that he had been wrong – the Soviet model had been an illusion, or worse. As he later said, ‘I was a loyal Communist party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it’s reasonable not to be silent.’ He tried to see the file the British secret services kept on him while he was still alive, but they wouldn’t let him. It has since been selectively released and is extensively used by Evans in this biography. He believed passionately in the power of history, saying in 2002 that “it’s more important to have historians, especially skeptical historians, than ever before.” 

Evans is very good on the institutional conservatism of the academic world, and the prejudices Hobsbawm faced as a Communist and Marxist. His proposed books were often rejected in the early part of his career, or delayed. He was denied numerous jobs which were given to far lesser but less political historians. His popularity also aroused suspicion and sometimes contempt. He was a charismatic lecturer, a diligent supervisor (it seems) and many of his students went onto glittering academic careers. Despite being outside of the game, in many ways, Hobsbawm was very good at playing academics off against each other, and avoiding the suffocating tedium of university administrative tasks. He wasn’t interested in climbing the power ladder, and his promotion was very late, given his achievements. He managed to evade being head of department by manipulating the appointment of another academic willing to do that very job.

It is not easy to pigeon-hole Hobsbawm. He was often called an ‘economic historian’, because of his ‘Marxist’ approach to history and the way he privileged the economy and class structures, but he was never this narrow in his life or his work. For many years he wrote a column on jazz for the influential UK magazine The New Statesman (using a pseudonym). His famous books on social bandits looked at marginal figures, criminals, priests and rabble rousers including anarchists. Many of his formulations became commonplaces or at the very least the centre of debates – social banditry, the long nineteenth century, the short twentieth century. He did privilege the economy in his overall analysis of these figures, but he also was interested in their lives in themselves, in the people he studied and wrote about, and in social change and revolution. As Christopher Hill wrote of him, he was often inspired ‘by a humanity and a deep sympathy for humble people.’[v] There are stories of him chatting with peasants in the south of Italy in this book. He was genuinely interested in these lives. He did not live or work in an ivory tower for much for his life.

His magisterial ‘Age of’ books do have a strong basis in economics, as would befit an old school Marxist, and his most returned to subject was the industrial revolution itself, but within that framework, he was able to include art, music, individual change, rebellions (such as the brilliant work with George Rude on the Captain Swing riots) institutional and structural change and of course politics. His ability to synthesize material was notable (he was a voracious reader, always with a book in hand, but he wore his learning lightly). He was also an innovator, helping to found the important journal Past and Present and taking part in the History Workshop series. His innovation, however, only went so far. He never understood nor practiced oral history, and although some of his work was similar in form, he didn’t embrace micro history. He continued to call himself a Marxist right to the end. But this ‘Marxism’ did not suffocate his work (and it changed over time in subtler ways). He popularized history, but his books were also staples on student reading lists, and they were also read by historians. This was a rare skill.

Politically, his communism waned with time. Evans maps out in enormous detail Hobsbawm’s increasing success and interest to publishers. As his books began to sell well, he had more power to decide what to do, ask for advances, and direct his own projects. In the earlier days he was the victim of publisher dictats and anonymous reader reports. As time went on, he was more and more in charge. He lived in the posh London neighbourhood of Hampstead, and often holidayed in Wales, but he was also a globe-trotter, with constant invites to give talks, receive prizes and attend ceremonial type meetings. He enjoyed some of this, but clearly found a lot of it very tiresome. In short, he became a celebrity. His house was always full of often famous guests, which Evans lists in an orgy of name-dropping. In this latter part of the book, there is too much detail, too many lists of advances. But perhaps this mirrors Hobsbawm’s own career. His fame eventually spread far and wide – in Europe (particularly in Italy) and even more so in Brazil. He lived this success as an outsider and an insider. His friend Roy Foster said that ‘he accumulated privileges, but he liked his outsider status’.

He helped to shape the shift in the Labour Party away from a more labourist, union-connected position towards the moderate centre. His interventions paved the way for Tony Blair’s New Labour and the ‘Third Way’. There was some irony in all this – the Marxist and communist helping to shape a shift to the centre. But he continued to oppose imperial wars and was a trenchant opponent of the Iraq conflict. He was no fan of Blair, despite often being ‘blamed’ for providing ideological gloss on the abandonment of Labourist politics. In many ways he was a conservative. He had little truck with 1968, and all that it personified. 

Hobsbawm was always an internationalist and a comparative historian. Politically, he often looked abroad. He was influenced by, and influenced, continental schools of history and historiography. He felt ill at ease in the US on many occasions, but he adored US music. By the end, was he still a Marxist? This is debatable. His views certainly became more moderate, although some referred to him as ‘the last Stalinist’. He retired from his permanent academic post in 1980, but he missed teaching and was offered posts in New York and elsewhere, where he continued to engage with students and colleagues. His retirement was extremely active – he published the important collection The Invention of Tradition (edited with Terence Ranger), which was translated into Italian and many other languages, and also fed into his later much-debated studies of nationalism (Nations and Nationalism). The Age of Empire came out in 1987 and The Age of Extremes in 1994 (when he was 87 years old, which is astonishing in itself). Age of Extremes was a global bestseller and appeared in 30 languages. In Brazil it had an extraordinary success and was cited by two Presidents, Cardoso and Lula. It was the best selling book in all categories. He sold more than a million books in Brazil.

By then, his lack of interest in women or gender, typical of many men from his generation of historians, was attracting serious criticism, but the old skills were not diminished, and he was writing about a time he had also lived through, which gave this book a particular edge, and at a time when everything was changing, and the Soviet bloc had collapsed. As Perry Anderson wrote, cited by Evans, he had an ‘astonishing fusion of gifts: economy of synthesis; vividness of detail; global scope, yet acute sense of regional difference; polymathic fluency, equally at ease with crops and stock markets, nations and classes, statesmen and peasants, sciences and arts’ (Evans, p. 541).

What remains of his work today? He was an innovator, and a populariser. His output was eclectic and original. He was not a determinist, and his ‘Marxism’ was relatively flexible. Above all, his books were widely read, often by those not particularly interested in history, and by many students of the subject. He had a gift for summarising complicated procedures and processes and events in a few sentences or pages. He had blind spots which were of their time, but now can seem inexcusable. He lived long enough to almost become out of date in his own lifetime. For example, he never really discussed or was interested at all in Africa and he was hostile to feminism – women often played second fiddle, or barely appeared, in many of his books. He also remained strangely faithful to the USSR, something which damaged him at various points throughout his long and distinguished career. He liked to change subject and interest. He wrote that he was ‘psychologically an unsystematic, intuitive, spontaneous historian, disinclined to plan’ (ix). He was also a public figure, who was read by political leaders – Presidents, Heads of State, people of great influence – as Evans said, ‘Not for him the life of a scholar shuffling between the study, the library and the lecture hall’ (Evans, p. viii).


[i] See, for example, Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Great Gramsci’, The New York Review of Books, 4 April 1974.

[ii] ‘An Assembly of Ghosts’, London Review of Books, 27, 8, 21.4.2005.

[iii] Anna Di Qual, Eric J. Hobsbawm tra marxismo britannico e comunismo italiano, Edizioni Ca Foscari, Venice, 2020, Studi di Storia, 14, 2020 (book downloadable here) https://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/libri/978-88-6969-401-1/ See also the excellent analysis by David Broder, ‘Hobsbawm in Italy’, Jacobin,  https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/11/eric-hobsbawm-italy-pci-gramsci

[iv] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Poker Face’, London Review of Books, 32, 7, 2010.

[v] Bryan Palmer, ‘Eric Hobsbawm’s Century’, Jacobin, 7.8.2020, https://www.jacobinmag.com/author/bryan-d-palmer

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