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Interesting times

The autobiography of Eric Hobsbawm, arguably the world's most accomplished living historian, and certainly the most accomplished historian within the Marxist tradition, was published in London by Allen Lane (The Penguin Press) on September 30.

The unforgiving eye: publisher's blurb

"Hitler came to power on Eric Hobsbawm's way home from school in Berlin, and the Soviet Union fell while he was giving a seminar in New York. He translated for Che Guevara in Havana, had Xmas dinner with a Soviet master spy in Budapest and an evening at home with Mahalia Jackson in Chicago. He saw the body of Stalin, started the modern history of banditry and is (presumably) the only Marxist asked to collaborate with the inventor of the Mars bar.

Multi-lingual, peripatetic, sceptical, endlessly curious, and almost contemporary with the terrible 'short century' which is the subject of his most widely read book Age of Extremes 1914-1991 (translated into 37 languages), Hobsbawm has kept his eyes and ears open for eighty-five years, and has been constantly committed to understanding the 'interesting times' (as the Chinese curse puts it) through which he has lived. His autobiography is one passionate cosmopolitan Jew's account of his travels through that past which is another country, where they do things differently, and how it became the world of 2001.

Hobsbawm takes us from Britain to the countries and cultures of Europe, to the USA (which he appreciated first through jazz), to Latin America, Chile, India, and the Far East and round the dead universe of what was known to its adherents as 'really existing socialism'. He shows us the history of the twentieth century, and the battles of arms and ideology that were fought during it, through the unforgiving eye of one its most intensely engaged participants."

A defiantly brusque vitality: an early assessment

"Interesting Times comes to a close with a magnificent coda on 11 September, and its political exploitation - above all 'the sheer effrontery of presenting the establishment of a US global empire as the defensive reaction of a civilisation about to be overrun by nameless barbarian horrors unless it destroys "international terrorism"'. In a historical perspective, he remarks, the new American imperium will be more dangerous than was the British Empire, because run by a much larger power. But it is unlikely to last longer. Indeed capitalism itself, Hobsbawm suggests, is once again earning the distrust of the young, as vaster forces of social change bowl the world beyond all known horizons. Defining himself as a historian who benefited from never wholly belonging to any one community, whose ideal is 'the migrant bird, at home in arctic and tropic, overflying half the globe', he calls on newer generations to shun the fetishes of identity, and make common cause with the poor and weak. 'Let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.' On closing these pages, for all the differences of form within them as a memoir, and of the reflections these suggest, the abiding impression is of the largeness of this mind, and the complex distinction of the life it reports. They are a fitting accompaniment to the achievement of the historian. A brusque vitality has defied the years.

- Perry Anderson

Eric John Ernst Hobsbawm: some facts

Born: 9 June 1917; Alexandria, Egypt

Education: Schools in Vienna; Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium, Berlin; St Marylebone Grammar

School, London; King's College, Cambridge (BA, PhD).

Married: 1943-51 Muriel Seaman; 1962- Marlene Schwarz (one son, Andy; one daughter, Julia).

Career: Birkbeck College, London University: 1947 lecturer, 1959 reader, 1970-82 professor, 1982- Emeritus professor of history; King's College, Cambridge: 1949-55 Fellow; New School for Social Research New York: 1984-97 visiting professor. Having been a visiting scholar at the MIT, Cornell, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and the Collège de France, he has given seminars and lectured in more than 30 countries and territories on four continents.

Some books:

  • 1948: Labour's Turning Point: 1880-1900;

  • 1959: Primitive Rebels; The Jazz Scene (as Francis Newton);

  • 1962: The Age of Revolution;

  • 1964: Labouring Men;

  • 1968: Industry and Empire;

  • 1969: Captain Swing (with George Rudè); Bandits;

  • 1973: Revolutionaries;

  • 1975: The Age of Capital;

  • 1977: The Italian Road to Socialism (with Georgio Napolitano);

  • 1978: History of Marxism;

  • 1983: The Invention of Tradition (co-editor);

  • 1984: Worlds of Labour;

  • 1987: The Age of Empire;

  • 1989: Politics for a Rational Left;

  • 1990: Nations and Nationalism; Echoes of the Marseillaise;

  • 1994: The Age of Extremes;

  • 1997: On History;

  • 1998: Uncommon People; Behind the Times;

  • 1999: The New Century (with Antonio Polito);

  • 2002: Interesting Times.

Some honours: 1973 Honorary Fellow, King's College, Cambridge; 1978 Fellow of the British Academy; 1993 Chevalier of the Palmes Académiques of the French Republic; 1996 Order of the Southern Cross by the Federative Republic of Brazil; 1998 Companion of Honour of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; foreign member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; member of the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino (Italy). He has 16 honorary degrees from universities and colleges in nine countries.

Some tributes:

  • "the historian who made us fall in love with history again" - Guardian.

  • "His two great syntheses on the origins of the society we inhabit - The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital - have become part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen" - Neal Acherson, The Observer.

  • "Eric Hobsbawm is the greatest living historian synthesiser" - New Statesman.

  • "Eric Hobsbawm is probably the best-known living historian in the world" - Orlando Figes.

  • "Eric Hobsbawm is generally considered to be the most influential historian alive today." - University of Pennsylvania, Commencement 2002.

  • "Professor Hobsbawm is a leading member of the group which, in the 1960s and 1970s, made the study of social history one of the great post-war intellectual achievements of this country and attracted the interest and emulation of social scientists and theorists worldwide." - University of Oxford, citations 2000-2001.

  • "One of few leftwing historians to be taken seriously by people who disagree with him politically" - Stuart Hall.

  • "We are completing and enlarging work which was commenced in some cases forty or more years ago. A certain breakthrough in British radical history, associated particularly with the Marxist tradition, took place some 45 years ago ... For me in 1940 as a school student it came through the work of Christopher Hill: his first brief study of 1640 ... And there followed upon this some other breakthroughs: one thinks of Eric's magnificent essay on 'The Tramping Artisan". The rest of us followed through that gap". - E. P. Thompson (1985).


  • A question of faith, by Maya Jaggi (Guardian).

  • The lion of the Left, by Tim Adams (Observer).

  • Man of the extreme century, with Tristram Hunt (Guardian).

  • Publisher's interview.


"The past is another country, but it has left its mark on those who once lived there. But it has also left its mark on those too young to have known it, except by hearsay, or even, in an a-historically structured civilization, to treat it, in the words of a game briefly popular towards the end of the twentieth century, as a 'Trivial Pursuit'. However, it is the autobiographical historian's business not simply to revisit it, but to map it. For without such a map, how can we track the paths of a lifetime through its changing landscapes, or understand why and when we hesitated and stumbled, or how we lived among those with whom our lives were intertwined and on whom they depended? For these things throw light not only on single lives but on the world.

So this may serve as the starting-point for one historian's attempt to retrace a path through the craggy terrain of the twentieth century: five small children posed eighty years ago by adults on a terrace in Vienna, unaware (unlike their parents) that they are surrounded by the debris of defeat, ruined empires and economic collapse, unaware (like their parents) that they would have to make their way through the most murderous as well as the most revolutionary era in history."


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