On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2019

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian:

Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: Barbara Ehrenreich is not a biographer of Rosa Luxemburg; Salvador Allende was not a Communist; one does not drive “up” from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.* The biography is eight hundred pages because Hobsbawm “lived for a very long time,” Evans tells us, and he wanted “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words.” But, as we near the two hundredth page and Hobsbawm is barely out of university, it becomes clear that the problem is not Hobsbawm’s longevity or loquacity but the absence of discrimination on the part of his biographer.

Instead of incisive analyses of Hobsbawm’s books, read against the transformations of postwar politics and culture, Evans devotes pages to the haggling over contracts, royalties, translations, and sales. These choices are justified, in one instance, by a relevant nugget—after the Cold War, anti-Communist winds blowing out of Paris prevented Hobsbawm’s best-selling “The Age of Extremes” from entering the French market in translation—and rewarded, in another, by a gem: Hobsbawm wondering to his agent whether it’s “possible to publicize” “Age of Extremes,” which came out in 1994, “& publish extracts on INTERNET (international computer network).” Apart from these, Evans’s attentions to the publishing industry work mostly as homage to the Trollope adage “Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon also take away from England her authors.”

Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions. What we get from Evans, however, is boredom itself: a shapeless résumé of things starting and nothing beginning, the opposite of the storied life—in which “public events are part of the texture of our lives,” as Hobsbawm wrote, and “not merely markers”—that Hobsbawm sought to tell and wished to lead.


Down the corridor of every Marxist imagination lies a fear: that capitalism has conjured forces of such seeming sufficiency as to eclipse the need for capitalists to superintend it and the ability of revolutionaries to supersede it. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,” “The Communist Manifesto” claims, “while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Throughout his life, Marx struggled mightily to ward off that vision. Hobsbawm did, too.

But what the Communist could not do in life the historian can do on the page. Across two centuries of the modern world, Hobsbawm projected a dramatic span that no historian has since managed to achieve. “We do need history,” Nietzsche wrote, “but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.” Hobsbawm gave us that history. Nietzsche hoped it might serve the cause of “life and action,” but for Hobsbawm it was the opposite: a sublimation of the political impulses that had been thwarted in life and remained unfulfilled by action. His defeats allowed him to see how men and women had struggled to make a purposive life in—and from—history.

The triumph was not Hobsbawm’s alone. Moving from politics to paper, he was aided by the medium of Marxism itself, to whose foundational texts we owe some of the most extraordinary characters of modern literature, from the “specter haunting Europe” to the resurrected Romans of the “Eighteenth Brumaire” and “our friend, Moneybags” of “Capital.” That Marx could find human drama in the impersonal—that “the concept of capital,” as he wrote in the “Grundrisse,” always “contains the capitalist”—reminds us what Hobsbawm, in his despair, forgot. Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.

You can read it all here.

Also, as many of you know, for the last two years, I’ve been making the case that Donald Trump’s presidency is what the political scientist Steve Skowronek calls a “disjunctive” presidency. Over at Balkinization, I use the opportunity of my deep, deep agreement with the great Jack Balkin—whose views on so many things I share, and who also has argued for Trump as a disjunctive presidency—to raise some questions about our shared position, and where our analysis may go awry. You can read that here.


* Several astute readers pointed out to me that this locution of traveling “up” somewhere is often used in Britain to signify going from a smaller to a larger place rather than traveling from south to north. I passed the information on to my editor at The New Yorker, and they’ve now cut the phrase from the text. I’m leaving it here because, well, the error was mine, and in a passage where I’m pointing out Evans’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.



Michael Breen 05.09.19 at 1:24 pm

You’re way off the mark with this ugly hatchet job. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and very enlightening.


Hidari 05.09.19 at 2:33 pm

From the Balkinisation piece:

‘The second possible explanation is the Democrats. One weakness of Skowronek’s thesis, and I fear Balkin and I may be guilty of this as well, is that it focuses too much on the dynamics within the existing regime….

The Democratic Party doesn’t seem willing to go there yet. From the preeminence of Biden in the 2020 primary to the wariness of party leaders like Nancy Pelosi to embrace Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, the Democrats do not seem ready to make a realignment. ‘

Well yes, this is the problem isn’t it?


Leo Casey 05.09.19 at 2:41 pm

As a political philosopher by training who has taken up the study of the history of teacher unions, I thoroughly sympathize with Hobsbawm’s obsession with boredom. I don’t think we need to find political reasons for it: it is a structural feature of the historian’s craft. There is nothing more tedious than working your way through reel upon reel of the archives of, for example, the US Socialist Party or the early Communist Party papers that found their way to Moscow and are thus included in the Comintern documents, to find the precious nuggets you want. And the broader your subject, there more numerous the number of sources which contain information on it, but not as its main subject. I keep telling myself, as I suffer through this to get to the Holy Grail, this gives new meaning to the CP union strategy of “boring from within.”


steven t johnson 05.09.19 at 2:55 pm

McKinley continued the Gilded Age by decades? I’m sorry but I’m not convinced a political analysis that overlooks a turn to imperialism abroad and Jim Crow, and possibly the Federal Reserve and the income tax as well is a very insightful political analysis. I’m even less convinced that comparing Trump to Jimmy Carter rather than Richard Nixon makes ins’t outright misleading. I’m not sure that seeing the current political parties as parliamentary parties, rather than franchise operations is useful. Most of all, I’m not clear on why we should discuss politics as if it were a matter simply of the people’s votes, rather than changes in the policies of the powerful. (You can call them the oligarchs if you dislike the term ruling class.)


bob mcmanus 05.09.19 at 3:01 pm

CS: “We have nothing like the organizational infrastructure, the party organization, the intellectual and ideological coherence, or political leadership we need.”

Times are different, conditions, material forces no longer are the ones of the 1930s-1950s and not only will the forms of struggle be different but I claim that theoretically we old fogies won’t be able to fully recognize them. And likely as not get in AOC’s way if we try to force her fresh wine into our old bottles.

My optimism (really isn’t) is not based on any Lukacsian mysticism about the proletariat, but on material historicism. Did ten thousand newspapers (inc union flyers and newsletters) necessarily forecast an Age of Revolution? Yeah, you know, it kinda did. A vast new increase in communication, shared knowledge, empathy and local agency are a proximate cause of social revolution. Now let’s look to find where it is happening. Likely not around AOC or Sanders. More likely to be a disruptive force for liberating disorganization than the opposite (do you get Late Capitalism yet?)

I need to go study swarm and platform theory.


degsy 05.09.19 at 3:30 pm

I don’t understand how Mr Breen thinks this was a ‘hatchet job.’ My impression was just that Corey felt the biography lacked an organising principle to make it interesting, and that this was particularly ironic in view of his opinion that that is a large part of what Marxism does in relation to historical ‘facts’ generally. The review itself could perhaps have done with more detailed reference to the text.


Stephen 05.09.19 at 7:10 pm

Prof Robin

Your article in the New Yorker cites Hobsbawm as lamenting “the most murderous century in history, which saw, in Europe, a revival of torture, the deliberate slaughter of millions, the collapse of state structures, and the erosion of norms of social solidarity”.

But is not that a word-for-word exact description of what happened in Soviet Russia under Leninist and Stalinist rule (of which Hobsbawm approved), and what did not happen in liberal capitalist states such as the US and the UK (which Hobsbawm would have happily condemned to Soviet rule)?

Please do not take this as being in any way an excuse for Nazi Germany, to which the same description clearly applies, and to which, if I remember rightly ( I may be wrong, I haven’t checked) Soviet Russia was at one point allied with Hobsbawm’s approval.


Melvin 05.09.19 at 11:21 pm

“overwhelmed by trivia”? I wouldn’t presume to sum up Hobsbawm’s intellectual career, but as I recall his own autobiography (“Interesting Times” ?) was rather like that, especially a lot of name dropping.


J-D 05.09.19 at 11:54 pm

Personally, I consider that it is reasonable to describe the route taken by (for example) Reinhold Messner took when he made the first solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen as ‘going up’ and unreasonable to describe it as ‘going down’, because his altitude was increasing and not decreasing.

I know there’s not much I can do about it if some people think it’s reasonable to describe that route as ‘going down’ (going down to the summit of Everest!) because of some happenstance in the history of cartography (it’s not a definitely identified happenstance, but if it wasn’t Claudius Ptolemy living in Egypt and thinking Greece was important, it was probably something equally arbitrary).

I would have thought it wasn’t of any practical importance, but I’ve read something now that suggests maybe it is:

A well-known bias in psychology reveals that most people think of north as being ‘up’ and south, ‘down’. Brian Meier, a psychologist at Gettysberg College in Pennsylvania, has also found that people unconsciously process positive words as if they were higher in space than negative ones. So he wondered whether these two things, north = up and good = up affect the value that people put on different areas on a map.

Sure enough, when shown a map of a hypothetical city and asked where they would like to live, people were significantly more likely to choose an area in the north of the city. And when another group of people were asked where fictitious people of different social status would live, they plotted them on the map with the richest in the north and poorest in the south.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that people are less likely to care what happens in countries or regions that are ‘lower’ than them on the map or globe.

The good news is that in Meier’s experiments the relationship between ‘north’ and ‘good’ was eliminated by one simple thing – turning the map upside down. So perhaps the world might get a little fairer if we just took a look at it another way up now and again.

Perhaps, therefore, there’s a solid reason beyond amusement to recommend the experience of studying McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map, or one of its spiritual kin:


David J. Littleboy 05.10.19 at 6:17 am

FWIW, Japanese uses “going up” for trains heading for the major city or capital, and “going down” for trains going away from said urban/political center. Maybe they picked it up from the Brits in the late 19th century when they (the Japanese) were starting up their train network. As an American (Bostonian), it was something I had to learn and get used to.

(Or maybe it was also a thing in German. Whatever, it wouldn’t apply to local travel unrelated to going to or coming from the capital, e.g. climbing a mountain. I’d expect that to be true in (British) English as well.)

Oh, yes. Since I’ve been here, a lot of the into-Tokyo commuter lines are now directly linked (same tracks, same cars) to intra-city subway lines at both ends, forming through-city direct links to distinct suburbs. This confuses things something fierce, since a “going up” train from one suburb becomes a “going down” train towards another automatically somewhere in downtown Tokyo. But the Japanese don’t confuse all that easily, and they’ll charge you three separate fares if you get on at one side of town and off at the other. (Since when it’s in town, it’s part of the Tokyo Metro, and it’s two different commuter train companies at each end.)


Hidari 05.10.19 at 6:33 am


‘But is not that a word-for-word exact description of what happened in Soviet Russia under Leninist and Stalinist rule (of which Hobsbawm approved), and what did not happen in liberal capitalist states such as the US and the UK (which Hobsbawm would have happily condemned to Soviet rule)?’

It might not have happened ‘in’ the ‘liberal’capitalist states but it certainly happened with the connivance of the capitalist/imperialist states given that ‘torture, and the deliberate slaughter of millions’ is also a precise description of many forms of imperialism (of which the Nazi variety was, so to speak, a concentrated version).

Fascinating fact: in 1940 the US had 19 million subjects in its (many) colonies. The UK and France had of course, far more.

It never ceases to amaze me how the word (and concept) of ‘totalitarianism’ has become a bromide for the liberals or (to mix the metaphors) a magic wand that makes them able to magically make imperialism vanish.



novakant 05.10.19 at 7:13 am

Interesting article, though I am not a fan of Hobsbawm. Might I also recommend Susan Pedersen in the LRB:



Anarcho 05.10.19 at 8:54 am

Hobsbawm’s Marxism always impacted negatively on his work as a historian. This is best seen in writings on Anarchism, not least his claims on the Spanish Anarchists in “Primitive Rebels.” These have been thoroughly debunked by an anthrologist in the early 1980s, Jerome R. Mintz in his classic work “The Anarchists of Casas Viejas” (he also debunks other myths inflicted on the anarchists).

As he notes, Hobsbawms’ “account is based primarily on a preconceived evolutionary model of political development rather than on data gathered in field research. The model scales labour movements in accord with their progress toward mass parties and central authority. In short, he explains how anarchosyndicalists were presumed to act rather than what actually took place, and the uprising at Casa Viejas was used to prove an already established point of view. Unfortunately, his evolutionary model misled him on virtually every point.” (271)

Discussing his specific examples, Mintz sums up by stating “Hobsbawm’s adherence to a model, and the accumulation of misinformation, led him away from the essential conflicts underlying the tragedy and from the reality of the people who participated in it.” (276)

(more details can be found here: http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/append32.html#app1).

Hobsbawm’s Marxism, like that of others, hampered his work as a historian — and best not to mention his Stalinism, which made him view the USSR as something other than the state-capitalist party-dictatorship it was. Little wonder he sought to undermine the rise of libertarian alternatives in the 1960s with his biased accounts of anarchism, accounts building upon his flawed, ideological rather than evidence driven, “Primitive Rebels.”


LFC 05.10.19 at 11:57 am

Stephen @7

Here’s a bit of what Hobsbawm says about Stalin in The Age of Extremes:

“Stalin ruled his party, as everything else within reach of his personal power, by terror and fear.” (p. 390)

“What gave this terror an unprecedented inhumanity was that it recognized no conventional or other limits…. It was the application of the principle of total war to all times.” (p. 391)


Peter Dorman 05.10.19 at 4:32 pm

What I think CR doesn’t make clear enough in his essay are the limitations of the Marxist view of politics and how they may have influenced Hobsbawm. In a Marxian view of the world, the class structure of a given society generates a set of objective interests. Classes are constituted in part through their shared interests, and the ideological/purposive aspect pertains to becoming a class for itself and not just in itself. The role of ideas is to transform objective into perceived and then mobilizing interests.

That’s a rather deterministic conception of politics, to put it mildly. One way to think about its constraints is the contrast between this narrow framing and the far more expansive notion of what humans will be able to do “after the revolution”. The achievement of communism is supposed to inaugurate a true human history, when a today-unimaginable panoply of great collective projects, intentional and creative, denied to earlier eras, become the content of political life. Our politics is channeled and pre-defined; theirs will encompass multitudes.

But it’s not like that at all. First, Marx’ theory of class interest is too schematic and incomplete even on its own terms. (For instance, Marx never settled on a theory that could explain empirical variations in the gap between labor and labor power, as central to his analysis of capitalism as anything.) It also contains consequential errors, such as his misconstrual of rent theory, which matters a lot for his analysis of the role of agriculture and natural resources. But more important, it is simply not acceptable to constrain the domain of politics according to what pertains or ought to pertain to class as defined by Marxism. Isn’t it obvious to the rest of us that the movement of feminism into political contestation with suffragism and subsequent waves, or the rise of political environmentalism, or debates over global rivalry versus solidarity are entirely valid aspects of what modern politics are about?

Hobsbawm lived long enough to witness the collapse of his politics. The rest of us are living in very political times.


steven t johnson 05.10.19 at 4:36 pm

“What gave this terror an unprecedented inhumanity…”

Why would Hobsbawm claim Stalin’s rule was unprecedented? The reign of Ivan Grozny (the “terrible,) was a precedent. Timur was a precedent. Empress Wu was a precedent. State policy leading to mass famine had the precedents of the great Bengal famine or the Irish famine. The war of the Triple Alliance showed how complete and how deadly national mobilization could be.

Frankly the notion that the savage waste of men’s lives on the Western Front or miscreants like the Nazis weren’t unprecedented inhumanity strikes me as Hobsbawm savaging the loser, no doubt a useful move. But good history?


Ben 05.10.19 at 5:22 pm

Another up/down wrinkle: ubiquitous expression in England regardless of geography, “going down to pub”


William Timberman 05.10.19 at 5:28 pm

In the spirit of when in Rome: I lived for 33 years in Santa Barbara, and believe me, no one — ABSOLUTELY no one — drives up to LA from there, Brits included. As an abstraction, from across continents and oceans, it may be that one’s cultural upbringing should prevail in the choice of directional signifiers. In the immediate vicinity, though….


LFC 05.10.19 at 6:52 pm

steven t johnson @16

The word “unprecedented” can be argued about, certainly, but the point of my comment was to point out that, at least in Age of Extremes, H. did not take a pro-‘Stalinist’ view, contrary to what one or two commenters above suggest about his politics in general.

I read The Age of Revolution many years ago and (most of) The Age of Extremes somewhat more recently. Also have dipped into The Age of Empire. These impressive books have their flaws, to be sure, but dogmatism does not really strike me as being one of them.


LFC 05.10.19 at 7:04 pm

p.s. The favorable excerpts from reviews on the inside pp. of the paperback ed. of Age of Extremes include Stanley Hoffmann in NY Times Bk Rev and W.R. Mead in L.A. Times Bk Rev. Hoffmann was a liberal and I’d say Mead is somewhere to the right of center; both found things to praise in the book. Hoffmann especially seems to have liked it, though I haven’t read the full review. (Whether Hobsbawm deliberately muted aspects of his politics in an effort to appeal to a wider readership or whether he decided to bracket some things or what, I don’t know. Maybe none of the above.)


bob mcmanus 05.10.19 at 9:19 pm

15: LOl no.

If there is one thing 2016 should have taught us, it is that American corporate feminism is as an overt self-conscious enemy of Sanders socialism, redistribution, economic and really social justice (does anyone think Harris will give us 50 States with choice? Does anybody think she cares?)

No, Marx and Marxians are not making a theoretical mistake by not groveling to the “Moar money for rich women” (including defense industry CEO’s) party.

The two sides are even clearer for 2020.


Alec McAulay 05.11.19 at 10:38 pm

Reviews quoted on the back cover of McGregor: Germany: Memories of a Nation (Penguin)

“A necklace of burnished cameos … highly readable”

R. W. J. Evans, New York Review of Books

“Succeeds triumphantly … culture, history and memory”

Richard J. Evans, The Times Literary Supplement

It’s not so much the double fees as the two free copies.


Neville Morley 05.12.19 at 5:06 am

Please delete this if I’m the seventeenth person to point it out, but Richard John Evans and Robert John Weston Evans are not the same person, and specialise in different periods of European history.


LFC 05.12.19 at 11:44 am

Alec McAulay @22

On the offchance that there may be a kernel of seriousness in your comment: I assume you know, but some other readers may not, that there are in fact two different historians with (close to) the same name, which is no doubt why the compilers of blurbs for that paperback made sure they were identified differently (Richard J. Evans and R.W.J. Evans). Anyway, two different people.


Andrew 05.12.19 at 1:30 pm

Alec McAulay: the confusion is understandable, but R.J.W. Evans (b. 1943) and Richard J. Evans (b. 1947) are two people, not one.


nastywoman 05.14.19 at 7:02 am

– and as somehow – mysteriously all of the non-comparisons between Trump and Carter on this threat got lost –
I could offer to write a timely and up-to date comparison between Trump and an a…hole (from Hungary) Von Clownstick just honoured with a visit to his… house.

And talking about ”disjunctive” – we could add a long and very philosophical explanation why the ”Gesichtszüge” of such… such ”Dudes” tend to coordinate themselves so disjunctively!


Magpie 05.15.19 at 4:28 am

@#15. Peter Dorman above:

In a Marxian view of the world, the class structure of a given society generates a set of objective interests. Classes are constituted in part through their shared interests, and the ideological/purposive aspect pertains to becoming a class for itself and not just in itself. The role of ideas is to transform objective into perceived and then mobilizing interests.

That’s a rather deterministic conception of politics, to put it mildly.


But it’s not like that at all. First, Marx’ theory of class interest is too schematic and incomplete even on its own terms.

Peter Dorman on August 4, 2018 lambasting Naomi Klein for her mushy, non-materialistic political environmentalism:

No, capitalism is not an ideology. What makes Jeff Bezos a capitalist is not his belief system but his ownership and deployment of capital. Capitalism is a system of institutions that give economic and political primacy to the possession and control of capital. There is no single metric that captures the effect that a capitalist context has on an issue like climate change, but the starting point is surely anticipated capital gains or losses from a given policy.


The real Peter Dorman please stand up.

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