The words “communist” and “socialist” are now used so recklessly in the United States that their meaning has been devalued. But Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died Oct. 1, was the real deal.
Born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Hobsbawm used Karl Marx as the inspiration for both his personal politics and his successful transformation of our understanding of history. He was an unabashed and unwavering supporter of communism in theory and practice, who only let his party membership lapse at the final moment, when the Berlin Wall fell.
His singular contribution to the telling of the human story was to reject the traditional method of viewing history through the actions of great men and women, in favor of describing the larger economic and social tides on which leading figures are often mere flotsam. Though history was usually taught through the lives of kings and queens, Hobsbawm demonstrated that economic and social history offered a fuller explanation of why events happened. He also gave prominence to previously ignored political agitators, whose courageous actions obliged leaders to agree to benign reforms.
His quest for discovering explanations for historical movements beyond the usual bold-faced names was inspired by his personal experience as a young Jewish man growing up in Austria and Germany, when Hitler and Nazism were on the rise. His choice to join the Communist Party in 1936 was both an act of faith and a practical solution to his personal dilemma. Though moderate opponents of Nazism were soon swept aside in their attempts to counter the threat to freedom by democratic means, Communists offered firm, direct action to subvert the burgeoning Nazi state.
To become a Communist was therefore an easy choice for Hobsbawm. He could either fight for humanity, democracy, decency and civilization – or he could resign himself to the victory of satanic, brutal primitivism.