Eric Hobsbawm

British academic historian and Marxist historiographer

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, CH, FRSL, FBA (9 June 19171 October 2012) was a Jewish-British Marxist historian and author, once the leading theorist of the defunct Communist Party of Great Britain, and former president of Birkbeck College, University of London.

Eric Hobsbawm in 2011


  • The love affair between intellectuals and Marxism which is so characteristic of our age developed relatively late in western Europe, though in Russia itself it began in Marx's own lifetime.
    • "Intellectuals and Communism" (1964), published in Revolutionaries: Contemporary Essays (1973)
  • [H]istorians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to the heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market. Nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who produce it. So my profession, which has always been mixed up in politics, becomes an essential component of nationalism.
  • Liberalism was failing. If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. 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.
    • As quoted by Eric Hobsbawm, in “A Question of Faith,” Maya Jaggi, The Guardian (Sept. 14, 2002)
  • Look at London. Of course it matters to all of us that London's economy flourishes. But the test of the enormous wealth generated in patches of the capital is not that it contributed 20%-30% to Britain's GDP but how it affects the lives of the millions who live and work there. What kind of lives are available to them? Can they afford to live there? If they can't, it is not compensation that London is also a paradise for the ultra-rich. Can they get decently paid jobs or jobs at all? If they can't, don't brag about all those Michelin-starred restaurants and their self-dramatising chefs. Or schooling for children? Inadequate schools are not offset by the fact that London universities could field a football team of Nobel prize winners.

The Age of Revolution (1962)

  • Though the web of history cannot be unravelled into separate threads without destroying it, a certain amount of subdivision of the subject is, for practical purposes, essential.
    • Preface
  • It is not strictly accurate to call the ‘enlightenment’ a middle class ideology, though there were many enlighteners—and politically they were the decisive ones—who assumed as a matter of course that the free society would be a capitalist society. In theory its object was to set all human beings free. All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it, and indeed came out of it. Yet in practice the leaders of the emancipation for which the enlightenment called were likely to be the middle ranks of society, the new, rational men of ability and merit rather than birth, and the social order which would emerge from their activities would be a ‘bourgeois’ and capitalist one.
    • Chap. 1 : The World in the 1780s
  • The fundamental fact about Britain in the first two generations of the Industrial Revolution was, that the comfortable and rich classes accumulated income so fast and in such vast quantities as to exceed all available possibilities of spending and investment.
    • Chap. 2 : The Industrial Revolution
  • France provided the codes of law, the model of scientific and technical organization, the metric system of measurement for most countries. The ideology of the modern world first penetrated the ancient civilizations which had hitherto resisted European ideas through French influence. This was the work of the French Revolution.
    • Chap. 3 : The French Revolution
  • For the Napoleonic myth is based less on Napoleon’s merits than on the facts, then unique, of his career. The great known world-shakers of the past had begun as kings like Alexander or patricians like Julius Caesar; but Napoleon was the ‘little corporal’ who rose to rule a continent by sheer personal talent. (This was not strictly true, but his rise was sufficiently meteoric and high to make the description reasonable.) Every young intellectual who devoured books, as the young Bonaparte had done, wrote bad poems and novels, and adored Rousseau could henceforth see the sky as his limit, laurels surrounding his monogram. Every businessman henceforth had a name for his ambition: to be—the clichés themselves say so—a ‘Napoleon of finance’ or industry. All common men were thrilled by the sight, then unique, of a common man who became greater than those born to wear crowns. Napoleon gave ambition a personal name at the moment when the double revolution had opened the world to men of ambition. Yet he was more. He was the civilized man of the eighteenth century, rationalist, inquisitive, enlightened, but with sufficient of the disciple of Rousseau about him to be also the romantic man of the nineteenth. He was the man of the Revolution, and the man who brought stability. In a word, he was the figure every man who broke with tradition could identify himself with in his dreams.
    For the French he was also something much simpler: the most successful ruler in their long history. He triumphed gloriously abroad; but at home he also established or re-established the apparatus of French institutions as they exist to this day. Admittedly most—perhaps all—his ideas were anticipated by Revolution and Directory; his personal contribution was to make them rather more conservative, hierarchical and authoritarian. But his predecessors anticipated: he carried out. The great lucid monuments of French law, the Codes which became models for the entire non-Anglo-Saxon bourgeois world, were Napoleonic. The hierarchy of officials, from the prefects down, of courts, of university and schools, was his. The great ‘careers’ of French public life, army, civil service, education, law still have their Napoleonic shapes. He brought stability and prosperity to all except the quarter-of-a-million Frenchmen who did not return from his wars; and even to their relatives he brought glory. No doubt the British saw themselves fighting for liberty against tyranny; but in 1815 most Englishmen were probably poorer and worse off than they had been in 1800, while most Frenchmen were almost certainly better off; nor had any except the still negligible wage-labourers lost the substantial economic benefits of the Revolution. There is little mystery about the persistence of Bonapartism as an ideology of non-political Frenchmen, especially the richer peasantry, after his fall. It took a second and smaller Napoleon to dissipate it between 1851 and 1870.
    He had destroyed only one thing: the Jacobin Revolution, the dream of equality, liberty and fraternity, and of the people rising in its majesty to shake off oppression. It was a more powerful myth than his, for after his fall it was this, and not his memory, which inspired the revolutions of the nineteenth century, even in his own country.
    • Chap. 3 : The French Revolution
  • In terms of political geography, The French Revolution ended the European Middle Ages.
    • Chap. 4 : War
  • The really frightening risk of war was neglect, filth, poor organization, defective medical services, and hygenic ignorance, which conditions (as in the troops) practically everybody.
    • Chap. 4 : War
  • One provision of the international peace settlement must, however, be mentioned separately: the abolition of the international slave-trade. The reasons for this were both humanitarian and economic: slavery was horrifying, and extremely inefficient. Moreover, from the point of view of the British who were the chief international champions of this admirable movement among the powers, the economy of 1815–48 no longer rested, like that of the eighteenth century, on the sale of men and of sugar, but on that of cotton goods. The actual abolition of slavery came more slowly (except, of course, where the French Revolution had already swept it away).
    • Chap. 5 : Peace
  • Rarely has the incapacity of governments to hold up the course of history been more conclusively demonstrated than in the generation after 1815. To prevent a second French Revolution, or the even worse catastrophe of a general European revolution on the French model, was the supreme object of all the powers which had just spent more than twenty years in defeating the first; even of the British, who were not in sympathy with the reactionary absolutism which re-established themselves all over Europe and knew quite well that reforms neither could nor ought to be avoided, but who feared a new Franco-Jacobin expansion more than any other international contingency. And yet, never in European history and rarely anywhere else has revolutionarism been so endemic, so general, so likely to spread by spontaneous contagion as well as by deliberate propaganda.
    • Chap. 6 : Revolutions
  • Nothing like nationalism is discoverable elsewhere, for the social conditions for it did not exist. In fact, if anything the forces which were later to produce nationalism were at this stage opposed to the alliance of tradition, religion and mass poverty which produced the most powerful resistance to the encroachment of western conquerors and exploiters.
    • Chap. 7 : Nationalism
  • These three factors—the influence of the French Revolution, the rational economic argument of civil servants, and the greed of the nobility, determined the emancipation of the peasants in Prussia between 1807 and 1816.
    • Chap. 8 : Land
  • Of all the economic consequences of the age of dual revolution this division between the ‘advanced’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ countries proved to be the most profound and the most lasting.
    • Chap. 9 : Towards an Industrial World
  • No groups of the population welcomed the opening of the career to talent to whatever kind more passionately than those minorities who had hitherto been debarred from eminence not merely because they were not well-born, but because they suffered official and collective discrimination.
    • Chap. 10 : A Career Open to Talent
  • The alternative to escape or defeat was rebellion. And such was the situation of the labouring poor, and especially the industrial proletariat which became their nucleus, that rebellion was not merely possible, but virtually compulsory. Nothing was more inevitable in the first half of the nineteenth century than the appearance of labour and socialist movements, and indeed of mass social revolutionary unrest.
    • Chap. 11 : The Labouring Poor
  • For most of history and over most of the world (China being perhaps the main exception) the terms in which all but a handful of educated and emancipated men thought about the world were those of traditional religion, so much so that there are countries in which the word ‘Christian’ is simply a synonym for ‘peasant’ or even ‘man’.
    • Chap. 12 : Ideology: Religion
  • Religion, from being something like the sky, from which no man can escape and which contains all that is above the earth, became something like a bank of clouds, a large but limited and changing feature of the human firmament. Of all the ideological changes this is by far the most profound, though its practical consequences were more ambiguous and undetermined than was then supposed. At all events, it is the most unprecedented.
    • Chap. 12 : Ideology: Religion
  • Bourgeois triumph thus imbued the French Revolution with the agnostic or secular-moral ideology of the eighteenth century enlightenment, and since the idiom of that revolution became the general language of all subsequent social revolutionary movements, it transmitted this secularism...
    • Chap. 12 : Ideology: Religion
  • Except perhaps for such irreducible sexual groups as parents and their children, the ‘man’ of classical liberalism (whose literary symbol was Robinson Crusoe) was a social animal only insofar as he co-existed in large numbers. Social aims were therefore the arithmetical sum of individual aims. Happiness (a term which caused its definers almost as much trouble as its pursuers) was each individual’s supreme object; the greatest happiness of the greatest number, was plainly the aim of society.
    • Chap. 13 : Ideology: Secular
  • But even the arts of a small minority in society can still echo the thunder of the earthquakes which shake all humanity. The literature and arts of our period did so, and the result was ‘Romanticism’. As a style, a school, an era in the arts, nothing is harder to define or even to describe in terms of formal analysis; not even ‘classicism’ against which ‘romanticism’ claimed to raise the banner of revolt. The romantics themselves hardly help us, for though their own descriptions of what they were after were firm and decided, they were also often quite devoid of rational content.
    • Chap. 14 : The Arts
  • To draw a parallelism between the arts and the sciences is always dangerous, for the relationships between either and the society in which they flourish is quite different. Yet the sciences too in their way reflected the dual revolution, partly because it made specific new demands on them, partly because it opened new possibilities for them and faced them with new problems, partly because its very existence suggested new patterns of thought.
    • Chap. 15 : Science
  • The progress of science is not a simple linear advance, each stage marking the solution of posing of problems previously implicit or explicit in it, and in turn posing new problems.
    • Chap. 15 : Science
  • In 1831 Victor Hugo had written that he already heard 'the full sound of revolution, still deep down in the earth, pushing out under the kingdom in Europe to its subterranean galleries from the central shaft of the mine which is Paris. 1847 the sound was loud and close. In 1848 the explosion burst.
    • Chap. 16 : Conclusion: Towards 1848

Bandits (1969; 1972; 1981)

  • People may not like to meet bandits, especially on a dark night, but a taste for reading about them seems to be universal.
    • Preface to Pantheon Edition
  • The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant.
    • Chap. 1 : What is Social Banditry?
  • 'Crocco' (Carmine Donatelli), A farm-labourer and cowherd, had joined the Bourbon army, killed a comrade in a brawl, deserted and lived as an outlaw for ten years. He joined the liberal insurgents in 1860 in the hope of an amnesty for his past offences, and subsequently became the most formidable guerilla chief and leader of men on the Bourbon side.
    • Chap. 1 : What is Social Banditry?
  • Banditry is freedom, but in a peasant society few can be free. most are shackled by double chains of lordship and labour, one reinforcing the other. For what makes peasants the victim of authority is not as much their economic vulnerability - indeed they are as often as not virtually self sufficient - as their mobility.
    • Chap. 2 : Who becomes a Bandit?

The Age of Capital (1975)

  • Still the dualism of the revolution of 1789 to 1848 gives the history of that period both unity and symmetry. It is in a sense easy to write and read about, because it appears to possess a clear theme and a clear shape, and its chronological limits are as clearly defined as we have any right to expect in human affairs.
    • Introduction
  • Above all, history – social and economic structure – and politics divided the revolutionary zone into two parts, whose extremes appeared to have little in common. Their social structure differed fundamentally, except for the substantial and pretty universal prevalence of countrymen over townsmen, of small towns over big cities; a fact easily overlooked, because the urban population and especially the large cities were disproportionately prominent in politics.
    • Chap. 1 : ‘The Springtime of Peoples’
  • The defenders of the social order had to learn the politics of the people. This was the major innovation brought about by the 1848 revolutions. Even the most arch-reactionary Prussian junkers discovered during that year that they required a newspaper capable of influencing ‘public opinion’ – in itself a concept linked with liberalism and incompatible with traditional hierarchy.
    • Chap. 1 : ‘The Springtime of Peoples’
  • When we write the ‘world history’ of earlier periods, we are in fact making an addition of the histories of the various parts of the globe, but which, in so far as they had knowledge of one another, had only marginal and superficial contacts, unless the inhabitants of some region had conquered or colonized another, as the west Europeans did the Americas.
    • Chap. 3 : The World Unified
  • We are today more familiar than the men of the mid-nineteenth century with this drawing together of all parts of the globe into a single world. Yet there is a substantial difference between the process as we experience it today and that in the period of this book. What is most striking about it in the later twentieth century is an international standardization which goes far beyond the purely economic and technological. In this respect our world is more massively standardized than Phileas Fogg’s, but only because there are more machines, productive installations and businesses.
    • Chap. 3 : The World Unified
  • Increasingly, therefore, the formal international structure came to diverge from the real one. International politics became global politics, in which at least two non-European powers were to intervene effectively, though this was not evident until the twentieth century. Furthermore, it became a sort of oligopoly of capitalist-industrial powers, jointly exercising a monopoly over the world, but competing among themselves; though this did not become evident until the era of ‘imperialism’ after the end of our period.
    • Chap. 4 : Conflicts and War
  • If nationalism was one historic force recognized by governments, ‘democracy’, or the growing role of the common man in the affairs of state, was the other. The two were the same, in so far as nationalist movements in this period became mass movements, and certainly at this point pretty well all radical nationalist leaders supposed them to be identical. However, as we have seen, in practice large bodies of common people, such as peasants, still remained unaffected by nationalism even in the countries in which their participation in politics was seriously considered, while others, notably the new working classes, were being urged to follow movements which, at least in theory, put a common international class interest above national affiliations.
    • Chap. 6 : The Forces of Democracy
  • As capitalism and bourgeois society triumphed, the prospects of alternatives to it receded, in spite of the emergence of popular politics and labour movements. These prospects could hardly have seemed less promising in, say 1872–3. And yet within a very few years the future of the society that had triumphed so spectacularly once again seemed uncertain and obscure, and movements to replace it or to overthrow it had once again to be taken seriously. We must therefore consider these movements for radical social and political change as they existed in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.
    • Chap. 9 : Changing Society
  • The era of liberal triumph began with a defeated revolution and ended in a prolonged depression. The first forms a more convenient signpost for marking the beginning or end of a historical period than the second, but history does not consult the convenience of historians, though some of them are not always aware of it.
    • Chap. 16 : Conclusion

The Age of Empire (1987)

  • Where historians try to come to grips with a period which has left surviving eyewitnesses, two quite different concepts of history clash, or, in the best of cases, supplement each other: the scholarly and the existential, archive and personal memory. For everyone is a historian of his or her own consciously lived lifetime inasmuch as he or she comes to terms with it in the mind – an unreliable historian from most points of view, as anyone knows who has ventured into ‘oral history’, but one whose contribution is essential. Scholars who interview old soldiers or politicians will have already acquired more, and more reliable, information about what happened from print and paper, than their source has in his or her memory, but may nevertheless misunderstand it. And, unlike, say, the historian of the crusades, the historian of the Second World War can be corrected by those who, remembering, shake their head and tell him or her: ‘But it was not like that at all.’ Nevertheless, both the versions of history which thus confront one another are, in different senses, coherent constructions of the past, consciously held as such and at least potentially capable of definition.
    • Overture
  • Most observers in the 1870s would have been far more impressed by its linearity. In material terms, in terms of knowledge and the capacity to transform nature it seemed so patent that change meant advance that history – at all events modern history – seemed to equal progress. Progress was measured by the ever rising curve of whatever could be measured, or what men chose to measure. Continuous improvement, even of those things which clearly still required it, was guaranteed by historical experience. It seemed hardly credible that little more than three centuries ago intelligent Europeans had regarded the agriculture, military techniques and even the medicine of the ancient Romans as the model for their own, that a bare two centuries ago there could be a serious debate about whether the moderns could ever surpass the achievement of the ancients, and that at the end of the eighteenth century experts could have doubted whether the population of Britain was increasing.
    • Chap. 1 : The Centenarian Revolution
  • A world economy whose pace was set by its developed or developing capitalist core was extremely likely to turn into a world in which the ‘advanced’ dominated the ‘backward’; in short into a world of empire. But, paradoxically, the era from 1875 to 1914 may be called the Age of Empire not only because it developed a new kind of imperialism, but also for a much more old-fashioned reason. It was probably the period of modern world history in which the number of rulers officially calling themselves, or regarded by western diplomats as deserving the title of, ‘emperors’ was at its maximum.
    • Chap. 3 : The Age of Empire

Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (1992)


Eric Hobsbawm (1992). Nations and nationalism since 1780: programme, myth, reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-521-43961-2. 

  • Nevertheless it is evident — if only from the Greek example just cited — that proto-nationalism, where it existed, made the task of nationalism easier, however great the differences between the two, insofar as existing symbols and sentiments of proto-national community could he mobilized behind a modern cause or a modern state. But this is far from saying that the two were the same, or even that one must logically or inevitably lead into the other. For it is evident that proto-nationalism alone is clearly not enough to form nationalities, nations, let alone states.
    • pp. 76–77.
  • However, mass expulsion and even genocide began to make their appearance on the southern margins of Europe during and after World War I, as the Turks set about the mass extirpation of the Armenians in 1915 and, after the Greco Turkish war of 1911, expelled between 1.3 and 1.5 millions of Greeks from Asia Minor, where they had lived since the days of Homer. Subsequently Adolph Hitler, who was in this respect a logical Wilsonian nationalist, arranged to transfer Germans not living on the territory of the fatherland, such as those of Italian South Tyrol, to Germany itself, as he also arranged for the permanent elimination of the Jews.
    • p. 133.

The Age of Extremes (1992)

  • My object is to understand ad explain why things turned out the way they did, and how they hang together. For anyone of my age-group who has lived through all or most of the Short Twentieth Century this is inevitably also a autobiographical endeavor. We are talking about, amplifying (and correcting) our own memories. And we are talking as men and women of a particular time and place, involved, in various ways,in its history as actors in its dramas - however insignificant our parts - as observers of our times and, not least, as people whose views of the century have been formed by what we have come to see as its crucial events.
    • Introduction
  • The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century.
    • Introduction, The Century: A Bird's Eye View
  • The world that went to pieces at the end of the 1980's was the world shaped by the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
  • In the simplest terms the question who or what caused the Second World War can be answered in two words: Adolf Hitler.
  • Human beings are not efficiently designed for a capitalist system of production.
    • p. 414.
  • The paradox of communism in power was that it was conservative.
    • p. 422.
  • Why brilliant fashion-designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed,sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history; and, for the historian of culture, one of the most central.
    • Chapter Six, The Arts 1914-1945
  • The best approach to this cultural revolution is therefore through family and household, i.e. through the structure of relations between the secondhand generations. In most societies this had been impressively resistant to sudden change, though this does not mean that such structures were static.
    • Chapter Eleven, Cultural Revolution, p.320
  • The cultural revolution of the later twentieth century can thus best be understood as the triumph of the individual over society, or rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past had woven human beings into social textures. For such textures had consisted not only of the actual relations between human beings and their forms of organization but also of the general models of such relations and the texted patterns of people's behaviour towards each other; their roles were prescribed, though not always written. Hence the often traumatic insecurity when older conventions of behaviour were either overturned or lost their rationale, or the incomprehension between those who felt this loss and those too young to have known anything but anomic society.
    • Chapter Eleven, Cultural Revolution, p. 335
  • The old moral vocabulary of rights and duties, mutual obligations, sin and virtue, sacrifice, conscience, rewards, and penalties, could no longer be translated into the new language of desired gratification. Once such practices and institutions were no longer accepted as part of a way of ordering society that linked people to each other and ensured social cooperation and reproduction, most of their capacity to structure human social life vanished. They were reduced simply expressions of individuals' preferences, and claims that the law should recognize the supremacy of these preferences. Uncertainty and unpredictability impended. Compass needles no longer had a North, maps became useless.
    • Chapter Eleven, Cultural Revolution, p.338-339
  • The tragedy of the October revolution was precisely that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism.
    • Chapter Sixteen, End of Socialism
  • As I think back, I ask myself, again and again: was there an alternative to the indiscriminate , brutal, basically unplanned rush forward of the Five-Year Plan? I wish I could say there was, but I cannot. I cannot find a answer.
    • Chapter Sixteen, End of Socialism
  • Communism as an ideology had been passionately committed to women's equality and liberation, in every sense including the erotic, in spite of Lenin's own dislike of casual sexual promiscuity. (However, both Krupskaya and Lenin were among the rare revolutionaries who specifically favored the sharing of housework between the sexes)...Yet, with rather rare exceptions...they were not prominent in the first political ranks of their parties, or indeed at all, and in the new communist-governed states they became even less visible. Indeed, women in leading political functions virtually disappeared...When women streamed into a profession opened to them, as in the U.S.S.R., where the medical profession became largely feminized in consequence, it lost status and income. As against Western feminists, most married Soviet women, long used to a lifetime of paid work, dreamed of the luxury of staying at home and doing only one job...whatever the achievements and failures of the socialist world, it did not generate specifically feminist movements,and could indeed hardly have done so, given the virtual impossibility of any political initiatives not sponsored by state and party before the mid-1980s
  • The greatest cruelties of our century have been the impersonal cruelties of remote decision, of system and routine, especially when they could be justified as regrettable operational necessity.
  • Surrealism was a genuine addition to the repertoire of avant-garde arts, its novelty attested by the ability to produce shock, incomprehension, or what amounted to the same thing, a sometimes, embarrassed laughter, even among the older avant-garde.
    • The Arts 1914-1945
  • The art most significantly affected by radio was music, since it was abolished the acoustic or mechanical limitations on the range of sounds. Music, the last of the arts to break out of the bodily prison that confines oral communication, had already entered the era of mechanical production before 1914 with the gramophone, although this was hardly yet within reach of the masses
    • The Arts 1914-1945
  • It was the tragedy of modernist artists, Left or Right, that the much more effective political commitment of their own mass movements and politicians - not to mention their adversaries - rejected them. With the partial exception of Futurist-influenced Italian fascism, the new authoritarian regimes of both Right and Left preferred old-fashioned and gigantic monumental buildings and vistas in architecture, inspirational representations in both painting and sculpture, elaborate performances of the classics on stage, and ideological acceptability in literature.
    • The Arts 1914-1945

On History (1997)

  • These and many other attempts to replace history by myth and invention are not merely bad intellectual jokes. After all, they can determine what goes into schoolbooks, as the Japanese authorities knew, when they insisted on a sanitized version of the Japanese war in China for use in Japanese classrooms. Myth and invention are essential to the politics of identity by which groups of people today, defining themselves by ethnicity, religion or the past or present borders of states, try to find some certainty in an uncertain and shaking world by saying, 'We are different from and better than the Others.'
    • Chap. 1 : Outside and Inside History
  • The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society. The problem for historians is to analyse the nature of this 'sense of the past' in society and to trace its changes and transformations.
    • Chap. 2 : The Sense of the Past
  • It is easier to formulate questions than answers, and this paper has taken the easier way rather than the more difficult. And yet, perhaps to ask questions, especially about the experiences we tend to take for granted, is not a valueless occupation. We swim in the past as fish do in water, and cannot escape from it. But our modes of living and moving in this medium require analysis and discussion. My object has been to stimulate both.
    • Chap. 2 : The Sense of the Past
  • For where we stand in regard to the past, what the relations are between past, present and future are not only matters of vital interest to all: they are quite indispensable. We cannot help situating ourselves in the continuum of our own life, of the family and group to which we belong. We cannot help comparing past and present: that is what family photo albums or home movies are there for. We cannot help learning from it, for that is what experience means. We may learn the wrong things - and plainly we often do - but if we don't learn, or have had no chance of learning, or refuse to learn from whatever past is relevant for our purpose, we are, in the extreme case, mentally abnormal.
    • Chap. 3 : What Can History Tell Us about Contemporary Society?
  • History as inspiration and ideology has a built-in tendency to become self-justifying myth. Nothing is a more dangerous blindfold than this, as the history of modern nations and nationalisms demonstrates.
    • Chap. 3 : What Can History Tell Us about Contemporary Society?
  • Let me put it in paradoxical form. It is equally unhelpful to dismiss Marx because we dislike his demonstration that capitalism and bourgeois society are temporary historical phenomena, and to embrace him simply because we are for socialism, which he thought would succeed them. I believe Marx discerned some basic tendencies with profound insight; but we do not know actually what they will bring. Like so much of the future predicted in the past, when it comes it may be unrecognizable, not because the predictions were wrong but because we were wrong to put a particular face and costume to the interesting stranger whose arrival we were told to expect.
    • Chap. 4 : Looking Forward: History and the Future
  • So let me conclude. History has made progress this century, in a lumbering and zig-zag manner, but genuine progress. In saying this I am implying that it belongs to the disciplines to which the word 'progress' can properly apply, that it is possible to arrive at a better understanding of a process which is objective and real, namely the complex, contradictory, but not adventitious, historical development of human societies in the world. I know that there are people who deny this.
    • Chap. 5 : Has History Made Progress?
  • The history of society is still being constructed. I have in this essay tried to suggest some of its problems, to assess some of its practice, and incidentally to hint at certain problems which might benefit from more concentrated exploration. But it would be wrong to conclude without noting, and welcoming, the remarkably flourishing state of the field. It is a good moment to be a social historian. Even those of us who never set out to call ourselves by this name will not want to disclaim it today.
    • Chap. 6 : From Social History to the History of Society
  • History, whose subject is the past, is not in a position to be an applied discipline in this sense, if only because no way has yet been discovered to change what has already happened. At most we can make counterfactual speculations about hypothetical alternatives. Of course past, present and future are part of one continuum, and what historians have to say could therefore permit both forecasts and recommendations for the future.
    • Chap. 7 : Historians and Economists: I
  • My argument implies that, divorced from history, economics is a rudderless ship and economists without history have not much idea of where it is sailing to. But I am not suggesting that these defects can be remedied simply be getting some charts, that is by paying more attention to concrete economic realities and historical experience. As a matter of fact, there have always been plenty of economists ready and anxious to keep their eyes open. The trouble is that, if in the mainstream tradition, their theory and method as such has not helped them to know where to look and what to look for.
    • Chap. 7 : Historians and Economists: I
  • If economics is not to remain the victim of history, constantly attempting to apply its tool-kit, generally with a time-lag, to yesterday's developments which have become sufficiently visible to dominate the scene today, it must develop or rediscover this historical perspective. For this may have a bearing not only on tomorrow's problems, about which we ought, if possible, to think before we get swamped by them, but also on tomorrow's theory.
    • Chap. 7 : Historians and Economists: I
  • Economists might conceivably agree on the value of history for their discipline, but not historians about the value of economics for theirs. This is partly because history covers a much wider field. As we have seen, it is an obvious drawback of economics as a subject dealing with the real world that it selects out some and only some aspects of human behaviour as 'economic' and leaves the rest to someone else.
    • Chap. 8 : Historians and Economists: II
  • From the historians' point of view these assumptions must be realistic or they are junk. If we use the assumption of perfect foresight by businessmen to construct data, the question of its empirical validity is crucial. Altering the assumptions, whether about the model or about the data, can make a substantial difference to both the data and the answers.
    • Chap. 8 : Historians and Economists: II
  • In analysing both agricultural change and economic growth in general, non-economic factors cannot be divorced from economic ones - certainly not in the short run. To separate them is to abandon the historical, that is the dynamic, analysis of the economy.
    • Chap. 8 : Historians and Economists: II
  • In short, for everyone engaged in scientific discourse, statements must be subject to validation by methods and criteria which are, in principle, not subject to partisanship, whatever their ideological consequences, and however motivated. Statements not subject to such validation may nevertheless be important and valuable, but belong to a different order of discourse. They pose extremely interesting and difficult philosophical problems, especially when they are clearly in some sense descriptive (for example, in representative art or criticism 'about' some specific creative work or artist), but cannot be considered here. Nor can we here consider statements of the logico-mathematical type, insofar as they are not (as in theoretical physics) linked to validation by evidence.
    • Chap. 9 : Partisanship
  • Having established the limits beyond which partisanship ceases to be scientifically legitimate, let me argue the case in favour of legitimate partisanship, both from the point of view of the scientific or scholarly discipline and from that of the cause to which the scholar feels committed.
    • Chap. 9 : Partisanship
  • It is in this situation that political partisanship can serve to counteract the increasing tendency to look inwards, in extreme instances the scholiasm, the tendency to develop intellectual ingenuity for its own sake, the self-insulation of the academy. It may indeed fall victim to the same dangers itself, if a sufficiently large 'field' of a self-insulated partisan scholarship develops.
    • Chap. 9 : Partisanship
  • The fundamental question in history implies the discovery of a mechanism for both the differentiation of various human social groups and the transformation of one kind of society into another, or the failure to do so. In certain respects, which Marxists and common sense regard as crucial, such as the control of man over nature, it certainly implies unidirectional change or progress, at least over a sufficiently long time-span. So long as we do not suppose that the mechanisms of such social development are the same as or similar to those of biological evolution, there seems to be no good reason for not using the term 'evolution' for it.
    • Chap. 10 : What Do Historians Owe to Karl Marx?
  • In short, the analysis of modes of production must be based on study of the available material forces of production: study, that is, both of technology and its organization, and of economics. For let us not forget that in the same Preface whose later passage is so often quoted, Marx argued that political economy was the anatomy of civil society. Nevertheless, in one respect the traditional analysis of mops and their transformation must be developed - and recent Marxist work has, in fact, done so. The actual transformation of one mode into another has often been seen in causal and unilinear terms: within each mode, it is argued, there is a 'basic contradiction' which generates the dynamic and the forces that will lead to its transformation. It is far from clear that this is Marx's own view - except for capitalism - and it certainly leads to great difficulties and endless debates, particularly in connection with the passage from Western feudalism to capitalism.
    • Chap. 11 : Marx and History
  • The major strength of Wolf's book - his concentration on interaction, intermingling and mutual modification - is at the same time its major weakness, since it tends to take for granted the nature of the dynamism which has brought the world from pre-history to the late twentieth century. This is a book about connections rather than causes. Or rather, the author has re-thought the problems of the genesis and development of capitalism less fundamentally than those of the interconnections essential to it.
    • Chap. 12 : All Peoples Have a History
  • Much less useful, I think however, is the search for deep structures and particularly the search for la conscience. I may be entirely heterodox, but I don't think historians have an awful lot to learn from Freud, who was a bad historian, whenever he actually wrote anything about history. I have no opinions about Freud's psychology, but I regard the belated discovery of Freud in France some forty years after the rest of the world as by no means an unqualified plus. It seems to me it is a minus, insofar as it diverts attention into the unconscious or deep structures from, I won't say conscious, but anyway logical cohesion. It neglects system. It seems to me the problem of mentalities is not simply that of discovering that people are different, and how they are different, and making readers feel the difference, as Richard Cobb does so well. It is to find a logical connection between various forms of behaviour, of thinking and feeling, to see them as being mutually consistent. It is, if you like, to see why it makes sense, let us say, for people to believe about famous robbers that they are invisible and invulnerable, even though they obviously are not. We must see such beliefs not purely as an emotional reaction but as part of a coherent system of beliefs about society, about the role of those who believe, and the role of those about whom the beliefs are held.
    • Chap. 13 : British History and the Annales: A Note
  • I think the programme, for the history of mentalities, is not so much discovery as analysis. What I would like to do is not simply, like Edward Thompson, to save the stockinger and the peasant, but also the nobleman and the king of the past, from the condescension of modern historians who think they know better, who think they know what is logical and theoretical argument.
    • Chap. 13 : British History and the Annales: A Note
  • Clearly some historians have shifted from 'circumstances' to 'men' (including women), or have discovered that a simple base-superstructure model and economic history are not enough, or - since the pay-off from such approaches has been very substantial - are no longer enough. Some may well have convinced themselves that there is an incompatibility between their 'scientific' and 'literary' functions. But it is not necessary to analyse the present fashions in history entirely as a rejection of the past, and insofar as they cannot be entirely analysed in such terms, it will not do.
    • Chap. 14 : On the Revival of Narrative
  • Let us, however, spare a final thought for those whose strange 'lived reality' is evoked successfully by Price's technique: the Moravians. They came to the benighted heathen in conditions which often seemed 'a foretaste of what hell must be like'. Unprepared for the forest, inexperienced, they suffered and died like flies - honest, uncomprehending German tailors, shoemakers or linen weavers in unsuitable European costumes, who could be expected to last a few months or weeks, preaching Jesus the Crucified with Blood and Wounds, among the scorpions and jaguars, before contentedly going home to Him. They were entirely dependent on the maroons, who did not like them as whites, made fun of them and occasionally persecuted them. They played music, and were uncomfortable when the blacks danced to it. They failed in all their endeavours except the heroic task of compiling Brother Schumann's Saramaka-German dictionary in nine pain-wracked months. Their successors are still there and still the Saramakas' only road to reading and writing.
    • Chap. 15 : Postmodernism in the Forest
  • Grassroots historians spend much of their time finding out how societies work and when they do not work, as well as how they change. They cannot help doing this, since their subject, ordinary people, make up the bulk of any society. They start out with the enormous advantage of knowing that they are largely ignorant of either the facts or the answers to their problems. They also have the substantial advantage of historians over social scientists who turn to history, of knowing how little we know of the past, how important it is to find out, and what hard work in a specialized discipline is needed for the purpose. They also have a third advantage. They know that what people wanted and needed was not always what their betters, or those who were cleverer and more influential, thought they ought to have. These are modest enough claims for our trade. But modesty is not a negligible virtue. It is important to remind ourselves from time to time that we don't know all the answers about society and that the process of discovering them is not simple. Those who plan and manage society now are perhaps unlikely to listen. Those who want to change society and eventually to plan its development ought also to listen. If some of them will, it will be due partly to the work of historians like George Rude.
    • Chap. 16 : On History from Below
  • 'Europe' had been on the defensive for a millennium. Now, for half a millennium, it conquered the world. Both observations make it impossible to sever European history from world history.
    • Chap. 17 : The Curious History of Europe
  • There is no historically homogeneous Europe, and those who look for it are on the wrong track. However we define 'Europe', its diversity, the rise and fall, the coexistence, the dialectical interaction of its components, is fundamental to its existence. Without it, it is impossible to understand and explain the developments which led to the creation and control of the modern world by processes which came to maturity in Europe and nowhere else.
    • Chap. 17 : The Curious History of Europe
  • There are cases - perhaps mine is among them - where this discovery can be particularly helpful. Much of my life, probably most of my conscious life, was devoted to a hope which has been plainly disappointed, and to a cause which has plainly failed: the communism initiated by the October Revolution. But there is nothing which can sharpen the historian's mind like defeat.
    • Chap. 18 : The Present as History
  • The Russian Revolution really has two interwoven histories: its impact on Russia and its impact on the world. We must not confuse the two. Without the second, few except a handful of specialist historians would ever have been concerned with it. Outside the USA not many people know more about the American Civil War than that it is the setting of Gone with the Wind. And yet it was both the greatest war between 1815 and 1914 and by far the greatest in American history, and can also claim to have been something like a second American revolution. It meant and means much inside the USA but very little outside, for it had very little obvious effect on what happened in other countries, other than those beyond its southern borders.
    On the other hand, both in Russian history and in twentieth-century world history the Russian Revolution is a towering phenomenon - but not the same kind of phenomenon. What has it meant for the Russian peoples? It brought Russia to the peak of its international power and prestige - far beyond anything achieved under the Tsars. Stalin is as certain of a major permanent place in Russian history as Peter the Great. It modernized much of a backward country, but although its achievements were titanic - not least the ability to defeat Germany in the Second World War - their human cost was enormous, its dead-end economy was destined to run down and its political system broke down. Admittedly, for most of its inhabitants who can remember, the old Soviet era certainly looks far better than what the former Soviet peoples are going through now, and will go on doing so for a good long while. But it is too early to draw up a historical balance-sheet.
    • Chap. 19 : Can We Write the History of the Russian Revolution?
  • Under these circumstances of social and political disintegration, we should expect a decline in civility in any case, and a growth in barbarism. And yet what has made things worse, what will undoubtedly make them worse in future, is that steady dismantling of the defences which the civilization of the Enlightenment had erected against barbarism, and which I have tried to sketch in this lecture. For the worst of it is that we have got used to the inhuman. We have learned to tolerate the intolerable.
    Total war and cold war have brainwashed us into accepting barbarity. Even worse: they have made barbarity seem unimportant, compared to more important matters like making money.
    • Chap. 20 : Barbarism: A User's Guide
  • In short, on the questions with which historical research and theoretical reaction can deal, there was and could be no difference in substance between scholars for whom the identity problems of Civitella were insignificant or uninteresting and a historian for whom they were existentially central. All historians present hoped to agree about the formulation of the questions about the Nazi atrocities, though one would not necessarily expect them to agree about them. All agreed about the procedures for answering these questions, the nature of the possible evidence which would allow them to be answered - insofar as the answers depended on evidence - and about the comparability of events which were experienced by the participants as unique and incommunicable. Conversely, those who were unwilling to submit their, or their community's, experience to these procedures, or who refused to accept the results of such tests, were outside the discipline of history, however much historians respected their motives and feelings. In fact, among the historians present there was an impressive consensus on matters of substance. It contrasted strikingly with the chaos of varied and conflicting emotions which agitated the participants.
    • Chap. 21 : Identity History Is Not Enough
  • The internal and external pressures to do so may be great. Our passions and interests may urge us in this direction. Every Jew, for instance, whatever his or her occupation, instinctively accepts the force of the question with which, during many threatening centuries, members of our minority community confronted any and every event in the wider world: Is it good for the Jews? Is it bad for the Jews?' In times of discrimination or persecution it provided guidance - though not necessarily the best guidance - for private and public behaviour, a strategy at all levels for a scattered people. Yet it cannot and should not guide a Jewish historian, even one who writes the history of his own people. Historians, however microcosmic, must be for universalism, not out of loyalty to an ideal to which many of us remain attached but because it is the necessary condition for understanding the history of humanity, including that of any special section of humanity. For all human collectivities necessarily are and have been part of a larger and more complex world. A history which is designed only for Jews (or African-Americans, or Greeks, or women, or proletarians, or homosexuals) cannot be good history, though it may be comforting history to those who practise it.
    • Chap. 21 : Identity History Is Not Enough

How To Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (2011)

  • Nothing is easier than to see the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount as 'the first socialist' or communist, and though the majority of early socialist theorists were not Christians, many later members of socialists movements have found this reflection useful.
  • Unlike the word 'communist', which always signified a programme, the word 'socialist' was primarily analytical and critical.
  • Marx's ideas became the doctrines inspiring the labour and socialist movements of most of Europe. Mainly via Lenin and the Russian Revolution they became the quintessential international doctrine of twentieth-century social revolution, equally welcomes as such from China to Peru. Through the triumph of parties identified with these doctrines, versions of these ideas became the official ideology of the states in which, at their peak, something like a third of the human race lived, not to mention political movements of varying size an importance in the rest of the world. The only individually identifiable thinkers who have achieved comparable status are the founders of the great religions in the past, and with the possible exception of Muhammad none have triumphed on a comparable scale with such rapidity. No secular thinker can be named beside him in this respect.
    • Chapter 14, Influence of Marxism 1945-83

Quotes about Hobsbawm

  • Presented as a pendant to Age of Extremes, a personal portrait hung opposite the historical landscape, what light does Interesting Times throw on Hobsbawm’s vision of the twentieth century, and overall narrative of modernity? In overarching conception, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and Age of Extremes can be regarded as single enterprise – a tetralogy which has no equal as a systematic account of how the contemporary world was made. All display the same astonishing fusion of gifts: economy of synthesis; vividness of detail; global scope, yet acute sense of regional difference; polymathic fluency, at ease with crops and stock markets, nations and classes, statesmen and peasants, sciences and arts; breadth of sympathies for disparate social agents; power of analytic narrative; and not least a style of remarkable clarity and energy, whose signature is the sudden bolt of metaphoric electricity across the even surface of cool, pungent argument.
    • Perry Anderson, "The Vanquished Left: Eric Hobsbawm", published in Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005)
  • In a comparative European perspective, these workers carrying national flags seem exotic and are poorly understood. Well-known treatments, even of authors from Central Europe—like Ernst Gellner or Eric Hobsbawm—whittle down the specificity of the region’s nationalism beyond recognition as they shave off edges to fit it into a global definition of the term. Hobsbawm’s idea of the nation was to apply to every corner of the earth, but in this book, we have paid attention to what people in one corner meant by this word. In that corner, the coordinates of the global story as told in Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism are either irrelevant or secondary: for example, John Stuart Mills’s idea that a national state had to be “feasible,” or that nationalism required a particular threshold of size before it could be properly launched. Czechs or Slovenes knew nothing of such parameters and made their history without and against them. Hobsbawm’s idea that language and history were not decisive criteria would have struck virtually everyone in East Central Europe as nonsensical—though it may well apply to the phenomenon of nationalism as observed from a satellite high above the earth.
    • John Connelly, From Peoples to Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (2020), pp. 796-797
  • Eric Hobsbawm might complain that I have been unfair: that my real gripe is that I wish that he had written another, different book. He might say that I want a Book Written for the Ages, that reflects what historians in future centuries will find of greatest interest. And he is right, I do. By contrast, he might say, his book is "written by a twentieth-century writer for late-twentieth-century readers," to whom "the history of the confrontation between capitalism' andsocialism'...[s]ocial revolutions, the Cold War, the nature, limits, and fatal flaws of `really existing socialism' and its breakdown" are worth discussing at length. He is writing for readers who take the central theme of twentieth century history to be the tragical-heroic course of World Communism.
    But the tragical-heroic course of World Communism is simply not the central theme of twentieth century history. For what audience is Hobsbawm writing his book? To what "late twentieth century readers" can we recommend The Age of Extremes as covering the pieces of twentieth century history they want and need to learn?
  • In 1968 I was a member of an attentive and admiring student audience whom Eric Hobsbawm was addressing on the theme, as I recall, of the limits of student radicalism. I remember very well his conclusion, since it ran so counter to the mood of the hour. Sometimes, he reminded us, the point is not to change the world but to interpret it. But in order to interpret the world one has also to have a certain empathy with the ways in which it has changed. His latest book is a challenging, often brilliant, and always cool and intelligent account of the world we have now inherited. If it is not up to his very best work it should be recalled just how demanding a standard he has set.
    But there are one or two crucial changes that have taken place in the world—the death of Communism, for instance, or the related loss of faith in history and the therapeutic functions of the state about which the author is not always well pleased. That is a pity, since it shapes and sometimes misshapes his account in ways that may lessen its impact upon those who most need to read and learn from it. And I missed, in his version of the twentieth century, the ruthlessly questioning eye which has made him so indispensable a guide to the nineteenth. In a striking apologia pro vita sua, Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that historians are “the professional remembrancers of what their fellow-citizens wish to forget.” It is a demanding and unforgiving injunction.
    • Tony Judt, "Downhill All the Way", The New York Review of Books (May 25, 1995)
  • Hobsbawm closes his memoirs with a rousing coda: “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.” He is right, on every count. But to do any good in the new century we must start by telling the truth about the old. Hobsbawm refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works. If he seriously wishes to pass a radical baton to future generations, this is no way to proceed.
    • Tony Judt, "The Last Romantic", The New York Review of Books (November 20, 2003), republished as "Eric Hobsbawm and the Romance of Communism" in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008)
  • Hobsbawm was, as he said in The Age of Empire, writing out ‘the unfolding of an argument’, and that argument takes as given that, when it comes to historical significance, economics matters more than culture, men more than women, the West more than the Rest. His omissions were constitutive, not lapses. Redoing Hobsbawm, in other words, would involve taking on those core assumptions.
  • The chief problem for all of Hobsbawm’s history was that his primary aim was to verify the theories of Karl Marx. Despite claims by his obituary writers that he was never a slave to Marxist doctrine, or that his work was “always nuanced” and “elegant”, the opposite was true.
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