Historian of Hope
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Hobsbawm resisted the idea that utopian visions contained the seed of their own destruction
Eric Hobsbawm, the most eloquent and distinguished chronicler of the tragic paradoxes of history, was himself something of a paradoxical genius. Both the histories he wrote and his own judgements that shaped them remain unmatched as a guide to humanity oscillating between emancipation and despair. No serious student of history can escape engaging with them. He was a historian, but often his histories were marked by a keen sense of worlds that might have been. He was a Marxist, but one of the few historians whose appeal transcended all ideological labels. His grasp of detail — from statistics to visual imagery — was unparalleled, yet his eye was always on the big story.
His political narratives contained brilliantly sharp political judgements; yet you always got the sense that he would also suspend his political judgements at crucial moments in the story. He was a Marxist, but in many ways, less concerned with the theoretical occultism that inflicted many of his colleagues; he stood for the common people, but had an elevated tone on ordinary politics that could border on the condescending. As so often, his skill and persona held together contradictions that would have doomed lesser mortals. His universal significance lies precisely in the fact that his contradictions were the contradictions of the centuries he described.
By common consensus, his trilogy on the 19th century — The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire — is regarded as his great achievement, one of the "summits of postwar historical writing," as Edward Said described them. It is hard to measure their impact because they have become, to use Auden's phrase about Freud, a whole climate of opinion. They are astonishing works in every measure: the literary craft, the handling of detail and a sense of being able to grasp the essence of an age beyond the vagaries of chronology. And they have the hallmark of all great books: agreement with the central thesis of the book is irrelevant to how much you can learn from it.